The warm days of summer might very well be behind us for now, but there are still plenty of things that need to be done in the garden. And if you’re like me, this is good news!
I love the fall months for their rich change in color, crisp evenings and moderately warm afternoons. But I know that fall leads to winter, and winters in Iowa tend to be long and bitter. This year, winter has come early, and I’m already aching for warm soil, dirty hands and beds of brilliant green. But there is a rhythm to this life. Life sheds its beauty in fall, is stripped to its core in winter in order to be reborn in spring.
So as we come to the end of the gardening season, we look to the coming months of cold and barren fields not only with trepidation but also with hope. On the other end of winter, somewhere between April and May, there is life! A new planting season!
But it doesn’t come without a little preparation. Our gardens are a living organism, and in order to get the most out of our spring we need to prep our fields and our plots to withstand the cold months.
Here are 5 ways you can prep your garden for winter.
Pull the brown. Now is the time to walk your beds and pull the leftover tomato vines, pepper stalks, and whatever else is left of your summer crops. Throw these in your compost pile, unless you suspect disease. If you wrestled with blight, verticillim wilt, downy mildew or club root, take these plant remains to the burn pile instead so you don’t infect your compost.
Cleaning your beds of spent plants will allow you to mend the soil and will help prevent bugs like the squash beetle from overwintering in your garden.
Lightly till your beds. If you have a small garden, you can do this with a hoe or rake. We use a walk behind tiller to open up the beds in our 3 acre marketgarden. The trick here is to not go too deep, where you’ll disturb the living microorganisms that are hard at work building your soil. A couple of inches is enough to expose any pests that might be planning on napping in your garden.
Test your soil. A healthy garden crop starts with healthy soil. Fall is the best time to test your soil as it will allow time for amendments like lime to breakdown before spring. Gardens big or small will benefit from testing soil at least once every 2 years. We test every year, pulling soil from each garden plot and amending as necessary, based on our crop rotation.
Taking soil samples is easy. There are plenty of home test methods available. Or you can simply pull a spade of soil from your garden (again, we take one from each plot), put into a Ziploc bag and take to the lab. Check with your local extension office for the location of a lab near you. It will usually only take a couple of days before you get your results back.
Cover your soil. Here’s a rule of thumb everyone should remember: never leave your soil exposed over winter. Leaving your soil exposed to the elements will result in erosion of your precious top soil (especially if your winters are windy like they are here in Iowa) and nutrients. So what do you do?
If you want to experiment with green manure, you might consider planting a winter cover crop like annual Rye. This will stand up to most winter temperatures and will provide an excellent source of organic matter for your soil. Make sure that you have a way to cut and till the rye, otherwise it will continue to grow through spring. You’ll also want to make sure that you till rye in as early as possible in spring, as it has a allelopathic tendencies and could tie up nutrients in your soil that may prevent seeds from germinating if not broken down.
Clover is another option to use as a cover crop. Till this in as early as your soil can be worked in spring and this will provide an excellent source of nitrogen for your new crops. Or leave in your garden paths to prevent weeds from growing.
If you don’t want to use a cover crop, you can cover your garden beds with mulched leaves or straw. Leaf mold provides a great snack for microorganisms in your soil, and both will break down to add a rich source of humus. Or you can simply use plastic. If you struggle with weeds, covering your beds with black plastic after you lightly till is a good way to force any seeds that may have come to the surface to germinate and die from lack of sunlight.
Whichever method you choose to try, covering your soil for winter is a best practice every gardener should be using.
Protect your perennials. You’ll want to protect any plants you hope to come back in spring. Cover your strawberries with hay. Prune any brown raspberry canes to soil level, but don’t prune the green ones; cover any canes that haven’t experienced winter yet with straw or mulch.
Prune your roses and heavily mulch with compost around their root base. Do the same for any flowering shrubs you may have.
Split bulbs and compost heavily for a welcome sea of color in the spring or summer months.
Tackle those chores. Fall is a great time to take on those chores that might save you time next spring. Cut any new stakes you think you’ll need for next year’s tomatoes. Move the pea or bean trellis and string for next year’s crop. Build those raised beds you’ve been thinking about. Maybe you’ve been longing for a better way to suppress weeds along your garden paths. Now is a great time to lay landscaping fabric and to spread wood chips. Clean your tools and put them away for next year.
Take a few minutes to sit down and plan out what you want your garden to look like next year. Make a list of any chores that need to done to accomplish this plan, and then work in whatever you can this fall so you can spend most of your time next spring planting and building your soil.
Now it’s your turn. What do you do to prepare your garden for winter?