How to Prepare your Garden for Winter
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The one thing you must do when putting your garden to bed for the winter.
Experts, including my grandmother, recognize that gardening is a complex process, full of delicate interactions between plants, the Earth, and the weather. Keeping plants happy and healthy can feel like an endless cycle of trial and error, with each season teaching us new lessons. The famous American cultural critic, H.L. Mencken, once said that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” However, when putting the garden to bed for the winter, there is one simple answer: the soil. By focusing on those practices and processes that promote soil health, you will set yourself up for success next year. And save time, effort and money in the long run.
If you are a conventional, organic, or biodynamic gardener, the following will provide a solid foundation for building and maintaining optimal soil health, regardless of hardiness zone or soil type.
Developing Concerns about Leaving Bare Soil
After you have removed dead, dying and unwanted plants, you will be left with bare soil! Seeing bare soil can give rise to three concerns:
1. Ecological Concerns.
In natural ecosystems, people associate bare soil with landslides, flooding, intense fires, and other catastrophic events. Leaving soil exposed to the elements can result in erosion, compaction, nutrient loss, and invasion from undesirable plants.
2. Economic Concerns.
More time and money will be required in the spring to recuperate nutrient loss, replenish organic matter, and re-establish soil structure. You may also find yourself dealing with a healthy population of undesirable plants that saw the bare soil as an invitation to “set roots.”
3. Social Concerns.
If you are an avid gardener, the thought of other gardeners seeing your bare soil may lead to feelings of shame, so carefully consider your choices outlined below.
Covering your Soil
You have two main options here, with some distinctions. I recommend trying them all at some point to see what practice resonates best with your garden, your time, and the resources in your area.
Mulch is a general term for a material that covers the soil. Three to four inches of compost and aged manure applied in the fall will slowly decompose, releasing nutrients that will travel down to the root zone where plants need them. This organic matter will act like a physical barrier to prevent soil compaction and erosion from the rain and wind, and help stabilize soil temperatures, to a certain extent. Mulch also acts as a barrier preventing unwanted plants from establishing. Depending on the type of mulch available in your region, you have at least four options.
1. Fresh manure. Often the least expensive, though smelliest, 3-4 inches of fresh manure can be spread on your garden beds directly in the fall. Then let time, weather, and the FBI (fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates) in the soil work their magic. Remember, though; you have to let that stink sit. Seriously. Fresh manure is actively decomposing and will prevent seeds from germinating and limit the growth of young plants. Not all manures are the same in terms of soil fertility. Still, they will all contribute significant organic matter.
2. Aged Manure. Aged manure is more stable and often less pungent than fresh manure. Use the pile of manure rather than sweeping out the barn, pens or coupe directly into your wheelbarrow. Aged manure still needs to be applied 2-4 weeks out. The increase in organic material will result in increased biological activity and negatively impact germinating seeds and young transplants.
3. Compost. Like fermented foods kombucha and kimchi, not all compost is equal in quality. Whether it’s your homemade compost or compost purchased from a soil building business, the quality depends upon the source materials. Although compost, like manure, is an excellent source of organic matter and diverse soil organisms, compost alone is unlikely to replenish all of your soil fertility needs.
4. Leaves. Deciduous leaves are often plentiful in the fall, and most of your neighbors will even “help” you by raking and putting them into bags. You can then sneak across the street and relieve them of their “trash.” Spread the leaves across your garden to create an excellent physical barrier that will slowly decompose and release nutrients throughout the winter and early spring. Avoid oak leaves, since they take much longer to decay. I also highly recommend mowing the leaves before spreading them to increase the rate of decomposition. Before seeding and planting in the spring, rake excess leaves away and add them to your compost pile.
If, like me, you love watching seeds germinate and grow, consider sowing cover crops in the early fall. The best time for sowing a cover crop depends upon your hardiness zone. All cover crops, once established, will protect soil from weathering events (rain, snow, and freeze and thaw cycles), improve soil structure, and decrease the loss of nutrients from leaching. Legumes, like vetch, clovers, and fava beans, will contribute an additional boost of nitrogen in the spring once they are incorporated back into the soil, and their roots decompose. Consider a cover crop mix, such as winter rye and fava beans, to optimize benefits.
Garlic. Fall is also the best time, depending upon your hardiness zone, to plant garlic! Softneck or hardneck garlic is one of the easiest crops to grow and can be dried and stored for months. I suggest heading to your closest Farmers Market and purchasing garlic from a grower in your area. Ask them for suggestions and tips specific to the varieties they sell. Chances are they have grown and saved garlic in your region for a while, increasing the likelihood your crop will be healthy and productive.
Tools. People who garden are often concerned about ecological sustainability. Fall is the perfect time to take care of your tools and other garden equipment, so they don’t end up in municipal landfills. Clean, repair, and properly store your tools and to prevent rust on metal, remove all soil and then apply a light coating of vegetable oil for additional protection. Disassemble and properly store your trellises, stakes and other plant-props. To prevent an expensive trip to the garden store in the spring, drain hoses and spray nozzles and store them in a location where they won’t freeze.