Fall Gardening: Preparing Your Garden for the Winter

November 17, 2019

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Cleaning and preparing your garden before the winter sets in makes it a lot easier to start the garden up again in the next season. That's why the fall is a perfect time for some critical garden chores. Here are some tips on how to prepare your garden for the winter.

Harvest, Preservation, and Storage of the Last Summer Crops

As the late summer and fall gardening seasons come to a close, we mainly occupy ourselves with harvesting the later summer crops: potatoes, garlic, shallots, onions, cabbages, eggplants, beet, carrots, squashes, pumpkins, etc. While picking the last vegetables from our garden, we are equally occupied with produce preservation and storage. Freezing, pickling, canning, drying, jam or juice making – there are many methods to preserve your summer bounty.

Garden Cleanup and Composting Dead Plants

By the end of the season, our garden usually ends up messy. The ground and garden beds are uneven, with lots of holes, covered with dead, withered plants, vegetables' roots, and leaves.

A good start in the fall garden cleanup is removing and composting all those dead plants. When composting, use only healthy plant material and don't use any plants or parts of plants that have taken on diseases during the season. Instead of composting these diseased plants destroy any infected material to avoid pest and disease from spreading to your future crops. 

Keep weeds out of the compost pile if you're doing cool composting where the compost never goes hot enough (130-170 ºF/54-76 ºC) to kill off the seeds. If you're bothered by veggie sprouts in the compost when spring arrives, you have three options - removing the seeds manually before composting, avoiding throwing plants with mature seeds into the compost pile, or try 'the hot composting' instead.

You can dispose of any organic waste from your kitchen into the compost and fallen tree leaves, as well. If you have clean ash from wood or other organic material, distribute it on the compost pile – nutrients from the ash will do good for next year's garden.

All of these organic materials will decompose during the winter, and by the time the spring rolls in, this compost will be ready to add to your garden soil to make it productive, healthy, and prepared for the new season.

Amending Soil with Organic Matter

The fall is a perfect time to add a layer of organic material to your garden to improve the structure of the soil. Once you've cleaned up all the plants from last season, break down the dirt a little with tiller or spade to get compact, fluffy soil. Amend the soil with manure, compost (the one you've prepared yourself or store-bought), or spread a layer of mulch that will decompose as the time passes. If you subscribe to the "no-dig" gardening methodology, as we do, you can add your organic matter to the top of the soil.

Organic matter will do miracles for the clay soil – it will break the soil particles and provide better drainage. On the other hand, organic matter improves sandy or loamy soil as it helps the dirt to retain moisture. 

Organic material will also improve the nutrient content of your garden. Plants feed upon soil nutrients, and when the season is over, the soil is 'weak' and needs more nutrients. 

The fall is also an ideal time for soil testing. The test will indicate the soil pH and nutrient levels in the ground, so you'll have plenty of time to amend the soil until the spring.

Planting Winter Crops

Fall is the right time to plan your winter garden and do some fall planting. The best cool-weather vegetables that you can plant in the fall and harvest during the winter or early spring are onions and shallots, garlic, kale, broccoli, beets, etc. Some of them, like kale and broccoli, should be started even earlier (July to September) as they take several months to develop and mature. 

When you choose your winter crops, make sure that each plant gets appropriate soil (alkaline or acidic, fertile, moist, etc.) and proper frost protection. With minimal care and maintenance, these fall-planted vegetables will reward you as soon as the spring arrives.

brown leaves to use for mulch in the garden

Adding Mulch to Perennials and Winter Crops

After you've cut back your perennials and dug up the bulbs, it's time to mulch them. Mulch is a cheap but effective way to protect perennials during winter. Despite the widespread belief that mulch protects plants from frost and freezing temperatures, the truth is that mulch provides a steady ground temperature. It reduces alternation between freezing and thawing conditions. Mulch acts as a shield from the sun and keeps the ground frozen. The stable temperature holds plants in a state of dormancy.

You can use shredded leaves, grass clippings, pine needles or bark, straw, wood chips or hay as a mulch material. A thick layer of mulch will provide excellent insulation and proper air circulation.

If you've planted some cool-season crops, be sure to mulch tender ones to protect them during the winter. 

Keeping a Garden Journal

Taking notes on the previous season can be quite useful in planning the following season, fixing some garden issues, or predicting better results. Whether you use a digital garden journal (like the Let's Garden journal app for iOS and Android), buy a garden journal, or make your own, it's essential to keep a valuable record of what's going on in your garden. 

Here are some of the things you should include in your garden journal: sowing, planting, and harvest dates, weather notes, information on pests and diseases, plants that did well in your garden, and plants that failed. You should keep track of anything that you think could improve your garden next season. These valuable notes will determine the position of your crops, seed starting and planting dates, soil preparations, fertilizing plans, etc. 

Cleaning and Storing Garden Tools for Winter

Although this final step seems minor, it is vital to clean and store your garden tools properly. Quality tools aren't cheap, and proper care will make them last longer. When the season ends, and you have prepared your garden for the winter, it's time to clean the tools. 

Remove any dirt with a metal brush, clean the tools with water, and dry them thoroughly to prevent rust. Finally, store them in a dry place.

Now that you've finished all these fall garden tasks, you can be sure that you've laid down a good foundation for the following season!

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