Winterizing a Garden for Spring Success
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As I harvest the last of my carrots, turnips, and winter squash, I look around at the state of my garden. It’s time to “put the garden to bed” for the winter. The days are shorter, the rains are here, and the air is cold at night. Autumn has set in. It’s time to look back at another growing season, and to look ahead to next year by planning and incorporating lessons learned. I try to consider three things when I start the process of putting my garden to bed for the season: soil health, prep for spring, and aesthetic expectations.
I want to enrich my growing space as much as I can. I want my soil to be a vibrant community of bugs and bacteria, a mix of plant-available nutrients and healthy physical structures. I need to ensure that no soil remains exposed to the elements. Soil left bare takes a beating, its structure breaks, and nutrients leach away. I use three methods to protect my soil: leaf mulch, cover crop, and resistance to tidying too much.
I tend to collect the leaf-mulch myself. It’s my main autumn tool for soil health. I look around my neighbourhood for maple trees and, with a rake and a wheelbarrow, I collect fallen leaves to use as mulch. It’s okay if other leaves end up in there too, but I try to avoid oak leaves since they don’t break down very quickly. A 10–20 centimetre (4–8 inch) layer of leaves has proven to be an excellent winter mulch for my garden. The worms and bugs love it and the soil is safe from the elements. Many garden shops offer leaf-mulch as well. It’s usually quite nice and dark as it has been composted for a while. As long as you trust your source, this is another perfectly good way of sourcing mulch.
Cover crop, sometimes called “green manure,” is another great option. Not only will it protect soil, it can add nutrition and improve structure when incorporated in the spring. Basically, when the garden is cleaned up a bit, I sprinkle cover crop seeds on the bare patches, rake it in a little and … voila! Done! Well … not so fast. Although it’s very easy to sow, there are tricks worth noting. Start by calculating the size of the area you are going to plant to be sure you purchase the right amount of seed. Consider what the soil needs, since different cover crops can provide different things. A bit of online research here can be helpful, but don’t get intimidated – try different things and see what you like best. I like crimson clover and winter rye, but there are other options too. Note the temperature when sowing. Be sure it is warm enough for your cover crop to germinate and grow a bit before winter sets in. And have a plan for the spring. You will need to incorporate the cover crop into the soil well before planting time and certainly before it goes to seed. This step can be a lot of work, especially if you are digging beds by hand!
Resist tidying up the garden. It’s harder for some than others to heed this advice. If you have some plants that remain in the garden but are no longer growing, they can act as guardians of the soil too, to a point. I leave my bush beans in, as I would with a cover crop. I will dig them in come spring. I leave my collards and kale in too. I might mulch around the base a little and in-between plants, but I don’t rip them out. They grow delicious spring shoots that I can harvest like sprouting broccoli, and I’ll get a few harvests before I remove and compost the whole plant.
Setting the Stage for Spring
The fall is the time to prepare for next season by planting garlic and cover crop, and laying mulch. It is also the perfect time to set the stage for next year’s garden. It is in the fall that I redesign my beds and set up my space to be more functional moving forward. All season I have been closely watching my garden. I know where the soil drains well, where the sun is strongest, where the shadows fall, where the hoses I use easily reach, and more. In the fall this information is fresh. Based on this experience and knowledge, I take the time to redesign the space for efficiency and flow. I draw a little garden map on paper to give me a head start when I’m ordering seeds in a few months. The work I do now sets me up for success next spring – a little bit goes a long way.
The aesthetic of the space is very important. It is personal and connected to how you will approach the next season. We all have our own sense of aesthetic and it is very important that your sleeping winter garden fills you with excitement and anticipation for what may come. You want to feel that your soil is safe and protected, gently passing the winter months and waiting for the spring – and for you.
There are many ways to put your garden to bed. Choose the one that works best for you. You can always switch it up next year. Have fun doing it. Connect with your space. There’s some grunt work involved and the elements can be unforgiving, so make sure you have the right tools, clothing, and gloves to enable success. And many hands make light work. Bribe friends and family with some tea, cookies, and hot chocolate, and spend some time with them out in the garden. Make an afternoon of it. Share a laugh. It’s good, physical work with a tangible start, middle, and end. Knowing your garden is safely and happily put to bed will keep you at ease through the winter – and it will give you a leg up when spring arrives.