Fall is approaching and you’ve picked your last heirloom tomato of the season. As tempting as it is to walk away, you should be considering preparing the garden for next season. Whether your garden has vegetables or flowers, the first hard freeze typically will mark the end of the growing season. A hard freeze will cause heavy damage to warm season plants. Use this as a sign to begin removing plants from the garden. This process is as easy as pulling plants up by the stems. Unless your plants are diseased, it’s okay for some of the roots to break off and remain in the soil. This is a natural soil booster as microbes break down the plant matter and slowly release nutrients back into the soil. If you compost, plant residue makes a great addition to your compost bin.
After you have removed old plants, it’s time to prep the soil for next year, or even a winter planting. Just like your lawn often benefits from a winter lawn fertilizer treatment, your garden will too! If you are planting winter leafy crops (i.e. kale, chard, collards and kale), they benefit most from a dose of nitrogen. Nitrogen is effective in stimulating leaf growth. However, if you’re focusing on winter root crops (i.e. turnips, beets, carrots, parsnips and rutabagas), phosphorus and potassium supplement root establishment.
If your garden is going unused until next Spring, it’s still beneficial to amend the soil. A soil test will help determine if any amendments are needed to balance out the pH (Lime or Sulfur). These will take time to acclimate with the soil, therefore adding them in the winter will ensure they’ve done their job by the Spring. Now is also a great time to add any compost to your garden. Adding several inches of compost and working it into the soil will enrich the soil and give another head start in the spring. Compost will help your soil retain moisture, stimulate beneficial bacteria and microbes and reduce the need for fertilizer.
Since you’re not planting anything until next Spring, avoid applying any manure or fertilizer. It’s tempting to fertilize now to save time in Spring, but you’re only wasting time and money. Organic or chemical fertilizers release nutrients over time. Where phosphorus and potassium are a slower release, nitrogen breaks down rather quickly. Applying a fertilizer in the soil months before you plant, will not give the full benefit to your young-developing plants.
The final step in winterizing your garden is mulching. The type of mulch used isn’t the key, but adding a protective layer on top of your soil. Mulching will provide a wide variety of benefits from insulation and protection, to preventing erosion from rain and snow. Wood chips are one of the most common types of mulch, however that’s an additional cost. Consider using leaves or pine needles from your lawn. Trees are conveniently casting their leaves or needles around the same time you need mulch for your garden. Simply use your lawn mower to break up the leaves and then apply a 2-4” inch layer over the soil. Leave this mulch in place until you’re ready to plant in the Spring. Do not remove this protective layer until after the final frost of the season. Farmer’s almanacs are a good reference for the final frost date, but have been known to be wrong.
Taking these few steps to winterize your garden will greatly benefit in the Spring. Not only will you have more time in the Spring to do other things, your soil will be better prepared for planting. Winterizing your garden is simple to do and will protect your investment for future growing seasons.