By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source of for growing tomatoes in the home garden.
When you know how to winterize your garden, you do much more than clean up a late season eyesore.
You invest in next year’s crop.
Think of winterizing as taking the first steps in getting started with vegetable gardening in the spring. And you needn’t take your winterizing steps all at once. Undertake them one at a time over the weeks after you harvest your crop. You can even extend these tasks into the early winter months.
Do that and time will fly between seasons. In just a couple weeks after you’ve shut down the garden for winter, you’ll be planning your new spring garden layout, buying seeds, and tilling the rows for planting.
Tomato cages, stakes, trellises. Bean poles. Ties. It’s tempting to leave them in the garden, especially when it means the tedious task of pulling out twining vines and leaves. Take care of them now. You’ll be glad you did because …
To do so, pull out supports and scrape off excess soil. Cut away and discard garden ties. Then, give cages and stakes a quick scrub with soapy water. Top off with a quick spray using 10% bleach solution to destroy any of the remaining pathogens that are clinging for dear life. Then, when supports are dry, store them in a clean space for winter.
Conduct a soil test to determine your garden’s nutrient content and pH at season’s end. This gives you a baseline for next year. Be sure to take your soil test before you add soil amendments for overwintering (see #4, 5, 6, and 7). In the spring, you’ll complete another one. And the difference between the two scores helps you find out which winter soil amendments rejuvenate your plot.
Pile discarded leaves, straw, grass clippings, and other yard debris in your vegetable garden. Then burn them. Burning adds wood ash to your garden. Trace minerals are in the ash, thereby replacing those nutrients in the garden. Burning also destroys weed seeds, fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms that overwinter in the soil.
When spring tiptoes onto the calendar, gardeners everywhere pull out their tillers and spades to turn the soil.
But do it now, too. You’ll improve your chances for a productive crop next year when you add a layer of rotted manure, leaves, or compost now – and then turn the soil, stirring up air pockets so aerobic microbes can have room to breathe. Think of all that organic goodness settling into your vegetable bed before the ground freezes, giving microorganisms a few extra months to work their magic. Use a spade or rototiller to work materials into the soil, mixing well to a depth of 8 to 12 inches.
A 3–4-inch layer or straw, leaves, wood chips, or mulch on your planting areas and paths in between rows won’t necessarily keep the soil warm, but it helps the garden maintain an even temperature.
Plus, when you mulch now at year end, your garden benefits in a big way early next season, particularly if you have a wet spring. Pre-mulched planting areas are protected from becoming a muddy, clumped mess. Then, when you till the garden to plant, the mulch will already be decomposing or composted, adding yet another dose of organic yumminess to your plot.
Note: avoid using fresh, decomposed mulch when you winterize your garden. It can rob your soil of nitrogen as it breaks down. Come spring, your seedlings need all the nitrogen they can get in order to put out leaves and stems at a fast pace.
They’re called “green manure” with good reason. Cover crops like vetch, clover, annual ryegrass, oats, rapeseed, winter wheat, and winter rye prevent soil erosion, suppress weeds, and add organic matter when you till them into the soil in the spring. Tip: sow thickly so winter weeds don’t encroach.
How do these crops improve your soil? You’d think that a cover crop would drain the garden of nutrients when it should be resting in the off season. But winter cover crops are special legumes that work in partnership with soil-dwelling bacteria.
Bacteria find a home in a winter crop’s roots. And since they are nitrogen gobblers, the microbes pull nitrogen from air pockets and convert it to a form that the winter legume cover crops can use. Once the cover crop dies in the spring, its roots decompose and release excess nitrogen into the soil.
That acts like manna to your new seedlings. Nitrogen is a key nutrient in developing foliage – meaning that tomato plants need it early on in the season to put out stalks and branches and leaves. Soil that’s been nurtured by a winter crop provides nitrogen to your new tomato seedlings in abundance.
As an alternative to planting a cover crop, you can improve your plot during the winter when you solarize the soil. Once you’ve tilled and added mulch, spread a black plastic covering across the bed and secure edges so it won’t blow away. Black plastic absorbs heat and works to decompose organic matter buried beneath. Temperatures can rise high enough to destroy bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens that overwinter in the soil. Solarizing doesn’t add nitrogen to your plot. But it can cleanse the soil from microscopic enemies.
Got asparagus, rhubarb, sage, or other perennial herbs in your beds? Cut back the dead foliage and mulch plant crowns to prevent damage from frost, ice, and snow.
What worked well this year? Take time to jot down notes about this season. You’ll put this important information to use next spring.
Spring is coming faster than you think. Give yourself a running start when you take a little bit of time to winterize your garden using these tips.
Prepping now helps give you a tidy patch during the off season. It improves the soil and helps ensure that your vegetable garden remains healthy and ready for a productive growing season.
And winterizing your garden now has an added benefit now. It allows you to spend more time in your garden, continuing to feed your soul as you dig in the dirt.
But the biggest payoff comes in the spring. By investing in your plot at season’s end, you reduce the amount of manual labor needed when it's time to start planting again. Instead of cleaning up a mess, you’ll be that much closer to planting seeds and seedlings for a fresh new growing season.
More tips for how to winterize your garden
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