Once fall arrives with its beautiful turning of the leaves, everyone knows what comes next … the cold chill of winter. Making the time to prepare your garden for winter will help your soil hold its nutrients, kill destructive insects, and pave the way for planting cover crops – if desired.
If you simply walk away from your garden after the harvest and let nature take its course, you are potentially crippling your next garden yield even before the spring planting begins. I know, after all the work of planting, tending to, harvesting, and preserving crops for months on end, spending one more hour in your garden might sound like one chore too many … but your efforts will be rewarded come spring.
Plant Clean Up
After all of the harvest canning and dehydrating are completed, it is time to go clear out the garden. Folks often leave plants standing in the garden to simply turn into on the spot compost. While this might sound like a good idea, it truly is not.
The rotting plants may be harboring various types of destructive insects, plant diseases, and contagious fungus. Rotting and damp plants in the garden area haven for bugs during the long cold months of winter. The bad bugs that make your decomposing plants their winter home will also lay eggs in the garden. Come spring, when everything looks fresh and new and you are ready to transplant your diligently cultivated seedlings, hungry bug larvae will be lurking just beneath the surface – awaiting the coming buffet.
Once the old plants are removed from the garden, it is time to go to work on the weeds. The perimeter of the ground growing plot must be tended to as well. The same bugs, fungus, and plant diseases that would thrive on your decaying garden plants will take up residence in the weeds.
In fact, any grass that gets overgrown around your garden or brush along a forested edge likely harbored many of the same destructive insects you battled all summer.
Ideally, you should keep a three-foot-wide swatch of grass around the entire perimeter of your garden cut down to the dirt all year long to deter destructive insects and ground hornets.
Once the weeds are removed, spread a natural insecticide in the area to kill any bugs still roaming about – before they can go lay eggs or go underground.
Garden Perimeter Tending
I plant marigolds around the perimeter of my growing plots to deter insects, deer, and rabbits because they loathe the smell. Mums are more fall hardy and can serve the same purpose to some degree.
Save your eggshells and crush them to be spread around this cleared perimeter from spring through the late fall to thwart crawling insects. The eggshells scratch or cut the underbelly of crawling insects, convincing them venturing any further in the same direction would be a really bad idea.
Spreading diatomaceous earth (agricultural grade DE only) and – or a 2 to 1 ratio of standard table salt and flour in the cleared perimeter will also kill bugs – good and bad alike, unfortunately. The insects that ingest either the DE or salt and flour mixture will become dehydrated, swell up, and ultimately burst. If insects are exposed to either substance topically, they will also become dehydrated and die, the process will just take longer.
Turning the dirt in the garden will not only mix any quality organic matter (compost) into the soil that you apply first, it will also loosen up dry or crusty soil to increase the infusion of moisture, keeping it far healthier.
Tilling the garden during the fall can unearth the eggs that insects have laid. When the eggs are exposed to cold temperatures, they die. You should till your garden once after the plant clean up and weed removal has been conducted and again right before you first hard frost.
It is possible to till a garden too deeply or too often. Limit the fall tilling to only twice and go no deeper than one foot down.
Whether or not you decide to till the garden, you should treat the soil to refresh it after the spring and summer growing season. If you add valuable nutrients to the garden soil during the fall months, they will have time to process and break down properly. Often, when you tend to the soil in the fall, you will not have to repeat this stage of garden prep during the spring.
There are two distinct advantages to enriching the soil in the fall instead of the spring:
There is no change in the compost – especially if it contains manure, will be too green and scorch your young garden plants.
Spring is typically wet to extremely wet, depending upon where you live. If your region receives a lot of rain, getting into the garden to apply composting material before you can plant could greatly push back your food cultivation plans.
Recommended Fall Soil Maintenance Materials
- Organic Compost – homemade or purchased
- Rock Phosphate
- Livestock Manure
- Agricultural Lime
- Bone Meal
Some folks cover their treated garden rows or raised beds with sheets of clear plastic to protect the recently applied composting material from potential rain, wind, snow, or ice. Depending upon your climate, you can leave the clear plastic on until the early weeks of spring before it has to be removed. If you go this route, plan on lightly hoeing the garden after removing the plastic sheets.
Cover Crop Planting
Planting cover crops will not only help your garden soil stay in top-notch shape, but it will also provide you with useful food for your table or the barnyard. A cover crop helps prevent soil erosion, deters weed growth, enhance soil quality, and even increase soil fertility. These crops can also help deter destructive insects and plant diseases.
Growing hardy red winter wheat is perhaps the best low maintenance cover crop you can grow. The wheat can be harvested for the berries which can be ground into flour or baled to make straw.Even if you have only a small growing space and do not keep livestock, the straw can be used to cover seeds broadcast into the garden to protect them from birds, rain, and wind during the spring planting season.
Best Fall Cover Crops Recommendations
- Red Winter Wheat
- Crimson Clover
- Winter Rye
- Hairy Vetch
- Winter Peas
The cover crops you plant in the fall will continue to grow robustly until the first weeks of spring. You must cut down or till the plants into the garden soil to thwart their growth. Fall cover crops typically need to be planted in mid-October, depending upon your agricultural growing region. The general rule of thumb when planting cover crops is that they must be in the ground at least two weeks to one month before your first hard – killing frost.
The decomposing cover crop will usually increase the nitrogen levels in the soil. Make sure to cut out or till the cover crops about three weeks before you plan to begin planting in the spring to better prepare the ground to accept new growth.The cover crops will attract deer to your garden, especially the red winter wheat and the clover. The deer tend to dislike oats somewhat, but will still likely venture into your cover crop area during the cold weather months when food is sparse. Protecting the garden year-round from deer using electric fencing, barbed wire, chicken wire, hardware cloth, bird netting, or snow fencing is highly recommended.
Mulching the cleared garden during the fall and winter can also help protect the soil from nutrient loss, weed growth, soil erosion, and water loss. You can mulch the garden in the fall even if you are planting cover crops.
The frequent freezing and then thawing of the ground during the fall and early spring can be rough on the soil – but still, allow weeds to flourish. The roots of even the hardiest of cover crops can also suffer ill effects from being subjected to such environmental changes.The mulch around the base of the cover crops and around the growing plot aids in the regulation of ground temperature and moisture levels. Such regulation can vastly ease the impact of environmental changes have on the soil. A mulched garden is significantly helpful if you are experiencing a rather cold spring and late frosts, as well. The roots of your vegetable plants will stand a far less chance of being shocked by the transition from a seed pot into the bare earth if it has been mulched all winter.
Best Fall Mulch Recommendations
- Fallen Leaves
- Pine Needles
- Grass Clippings
These seven simple winter garden preparation tips will require extra work long after you pack away your Mason jars and bushel baskets, but taking advantage of the traditional growing season downtime can lead to an epically successful harvest the following year.
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