Preparing your garden for winter

Kale with a straw mulch in the urban vegetable garden.

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I pulled our tomato plants out. There’s something about that moment that really signifies the end of the summer. My mom carefully picked any remaining green tomatoes from the vines, and I made a surprisingly delicious soup from them (I adapted the recipe for a vegetarian version). You can also ripen green tomatoes indoors, but most of ours were so underdeveloped that I wasn’t going to take my chances.

We ended up spending about half the day preparing the garden for winter. Luckily, we had warm dry weather, and with a few extra pairs of hands and a big cup of coffee, the work went quickly.

The goal with winter preparation is to protect your plants, and, more importantly, your soil, from the damage of winter weather. In BC, months of continuous rain can erode and compress your soil, washing out valuable nutrients and turning it acidic. Good winter preparation will help keep your soil in condition, add several weeks of growth to your garden in the late fall and early spring, and suppress weeds.

Try to protect your garden before the first frost hits — ideally, a few weeks before. Look online to find records of the average first frost date in your area. In a perfect situation, you’ll be keeping some forms of protection on your crop year-round, so that your winter prep day will be just another regular day of maintenance in the garden. If that’s not the case, just do what you can.

What should you do to prepare your garden for the winter? Techniques vary considerably, but here’s what works for me:

STEP 1: REMOVE ANY DISEASED PLANTS OR PLANT PARTS
With mild infestations of powdery mildew, leaf miners, allium rust and other fall problems, I’ve had decent luck with just cutting out the parts of the plants that look diseased. But if you’ve been hit hard, you might have to remove whole plants, or even clear out the entire bed. Don’t get emotional about it; it’s a normal part of gardening.

Use designated gloves and tools to do this work, and place everything into your city compost/leaf trimming bin (hopefully you are lucky enough to have one where you live). Wash your hands and tools with soap after you’ve done this work, because you don’t want to spread plant diseases around.

If you use any organic treatments for crop diseases, now might be a good time to apply them.

STEP 2: THIN YOUR PLANTS OUT
If you haven’t done so already, thin your seedlings out thoroughly, and remove/clip back any mature plants that are getting too large. You want to have enough air circulation between your plants to prevent the spread of disease during this vulnerable time. Eat your thinnings and put any inedible, non-diseased parts (like parsnip tops) into your garden compost pile.

STEP 3: REMOVE ANY PLANTS THAT HAVE STOPPED PRODUCING.
Now is the time to pull out your big summer fruiting crops, like corn, zucchini, tomatoes and beans. Put these plants into the city compost because they are probably diseased by now.

STEP 4: ADD ORGANIC MATTER.
If you have any partially finished compost handy (from your worm bin or compost pile), add it to unplanted areas of your garden. It will protect your soil over the winter and will break down early in the spring. I once helped a group of farmers with their fall garden prep, and they actually shoveled a foot-thick layer of rotten grocery store produce all over their fields. It looked like a rainbow, with whole eggplants and peppers piled atop the rows. If you have a large area where nothing is planted, you might want to give this technique a try, though I don’t recommend it for small spaces.

STEP 5: COVER YOUR SOIL.
You have three options to protect bare patches of your soil:

  • a) Plant more crops. If your soil is in good condition, and if you’re using polytunnels, try planting more veggies. You’ll want to do this at least six weeks before the first frost date. Ideally, your seeds will grow into small plants in the fall, survive the winter, and become the first thing you harvest in early spring. This is a great solution for smallish bare patches.
  • b) Plant a cover crop. This a great solution if your soil is in bad shape or if you don’t use polytunnels. If you have several beds, clear one out entirely and plant a cover crop as part of your annual rotation (I like to follow it after a heavy feeder, like squash). You’ll want to clear the entire bed for your cover crop — it doesn’t do well with interplanting, in my experience.
  • c) Mulch it. Cover the soil around your big, hardy fall crops — garlic kale, and others — with a three-to-six-inch layer of straw, leaves or other mulching materials. Mulching doesn’t work around delicate seedlings, but it’s great for the big, tough plants that grow outside of your hoop houses, or for entire beds that don’t have anything growing.

STEP 6: BUILD OR REPAIR POLYTUNNELS AND OTHER STRUCTURES.
If you’ve built polytunnels over your raised beds, you’re ahead of the game. These structures are inexpensive, easy to build, and will do wonders when it comes to extending your growing season. Rebuild anything that’s broken, and cover your tunnels with a nice layer of clear plastic.

If you use an irrigation system, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for winter care. You may have to dismantle it and store it in a protected place.

Now, have a cup of hot tea and congratulate yourself on the great work you’ve done to maintain your garden.

Do you have a great technique to protect your crops? Please share it with me.

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