Whether your garden consists of a window box or an acre of land, taking the proper steps to prepare your garden for winter will help your plot stay neat and tidy through the barren months. And it will be ready to spring to life as soon as the growing season begins anew.
The leaves are turning in many parts of the country, and a certain crispness in the air makes it clear that summer is officially over. Now that we’re adjusted to new routines, it’s time for that last great ritual of the season, your final fall gardening task: putting the garden to rest for the winter.
How to Prepare Your Garden for Winter
While it’s tempting to just rake away the leaves and debris and call it finished, veteran gardeners know that a little extra care this time of year can make next year’s gardening not just more productive, but more enjoyable as well.
Reflect on the Season Past
Fall is a wonderful time to look back and celebrate this year’s garden successes. While you enjoy those last few tomatoes and autumn greens, take the opportunity to analyze what worked well for you this year, and what you’d like to do differently next time around.
If you aren’t yet in the habit of keeping a garden journal, now is an excellent time to start. After a few months, you may not remember where everything was this year, or what problems you experienced. Jotting everything down now will help immensely next spring when you’re trying to remember just where to avoid planting your peppers, which diseases to select resistant varieties for, or what that super yummy strain of sweet corn was. (Don’t forget to remind yourself to take it easy when planting zucchini, too!)
There are plenty of apps on the market that can help you track your garden, but don’t feel you need to be super high-tech. A simple notebook makes as good a garden journal as anything, and (pardon the pun) they’re dirt cheap this time of year – just pick up an extra one when you take your kids shopping for school supplies.
Plan for Next Year’s Success
Now that you’ve given a little thought to what went right and what went wrong this year, you can use your findings to give yourself a little head start on next season’s garden.
Autumn is a great time to build your soil and replenish what’s missing. If you don’t already have a composting setup, this is a great time to start. Just think how rich and fertile your soil will be next year with all the added nutrients.
Another step as you prepare your garden for winter is to test the soil. A comprehensive soil test costs less than the value of a week’s worth of veggies from an average garden. It will tell you exactly what your soil will need to grow the yummiest, most nutritious produce and lushest flowers. Ask your county extension service where to get one in your area. Or check this resource of extension offices in every state.
Plan, too, for size and placement of next year’s garden. Do you want to expand? Fall is an excellent time to break new ground. Thinking about raised beds? Planning them now will prevent scrambling for time and materials when you’re under pressure to get the garden in next spring.
Lastly, sketch out a rough map of next spring’s garden. Knowing which plants will go where can help you better prepare the soil for each type of plant. For example, if you want to plant blueberries next year you may need to lower your soil’s pH where you plan to put them.
Preparation Makes Perfect
Now that your planning is done, it’s time to grab your gardening gloves for the last time this year and get to work putting your garden to bed for the winter. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Clean up debris. Rake leaves and pull up the old dead plants. Burn anything that shows signs of disease; the rest can go into the compost bin.
- Till the soil. Tilling gives your garden a neat appearance, and helps control certain pests, such as the squash vine borer, which overwinter as pupae in the soil. It’s also a convenient way to add amendments.
- Test and amend your soil. Fall is an excellent time to replenish your soil and adjust for pH by adding amendments such as lime, compost, and ground rock; they’ll get a chance to settle into the soil over the winter months. Always test before you amend to prevent throwing your soil out of balance. And be sure you read labels and wear protective clothing (and/or a respirator) when appropriate.
- Consider mycorrhyzals. Mycorrhyzal agents are microorganisms naturally present in soil that assist plants with nutrient uptake. Think of them as probiotics for your plants. Many garden soils are deficient in mycorrhyzals; adding them as amendments to your soil may help your plants grow stronger and more drought resistant.
- Protect your perennials. Spread a thick layer of mulch around the roots of tender plants. Stake young fruit and nut trees against the wind. The trunks of young trees should also be protected against rodent damage. You can wrap them with hardware cloth, or use a spiral tree protector. The latter will also protect tender bark from winter sunscald.
- Plant! Spring isn’t the only time to get our hands in the dirt. Plant your spring bulbs and garlic now. Many trees and shrubs can also be planted in the fall.
- Service your tools and equipment. Make a list of what needs repair or replacement. Do it right away while it’s top of mind, or schedule it for those winter months when you’re homesick for your garden. Fall can also be a good time to find bargains on tools and equipment.
Bonus Tip – Get the Kids Involved
We often think of gardening as a spring and summer activity, but the fall garden has much to offer. Plus it’s a great time to garden with kids. Big fall harvests yield the opportunity for hands-on learning about food preservation (not to mention a fresh snack or two straight from the garden!), and cleaning up the summer garden by moving last season’s plantings to the compost can lead to conversations about the natural life cycle of organic things. The fall is also a time to collect and save seeds, as well as plant crops that will overwinter – all activities kids can actively participate in.
Tilling and most amending are adult jobs, but many kids love to help with other tasks in the garden. (Especially when it involves piles of leaves!) It’s also a wonderful, gentle way to introduce young children to that natural life cycle.
If you have a new baby or are just plain too busy to do everything, just do what you can (or hire the neighbor kid to do it). But preparing your garden for winter doesn’t have to be a major ordeal. Spread the jobs out over a few days or a few weeks, and before you know it, you’ll look forward to winterizing as a satisfying and relaxing ritual to end the year.