How to prepare your garden for winter

As you’re pulling out the warm woolies in preparation for winter, don’t forget about your garden! Gardens need protection from winter conditions that can decrease soils’ biological activity, cause erosion, and deplete nutrients.

So, what exactly do you need to do? We recommend a simple three-step process: De-mess it, assess it, and dress it. You’ll see the best results if you complete the trifecta, but if you don’t have time for all three, that’s okay. Any one of them will improve your garden’s chances for spring success.

1. De-mess it

Garden bed with plants pulled up in a pile.

The first step in getting your garden ready for winter is to clean out your beds and borders. Pull annuals and any residual plant material (add them to a backyard compost pile). Shredding plant material and leaving it in place is another option, though keep in mind that less residual vegetation means less chances for disease and insects next year. 

Here’s a cool tip from Rodale:

Vegetables in the brassica family, including cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and radishes left in the ground now and until pre-planting time in early spring can act as pest lures. As spring hits, the plants release cyanide compounds that can kill off nuisance wireworms.

Of course, let’s not forget our resident over-winter birds! Leave a few stalks from plants containing berries and seeds as a great source of food for birds and other wildlife throughout winter.

2. Assess it

Ideally, gardeners should test soil every year to get a sense of pH and organic content. Knowing whether or not you need to amend your soil is crucial, as the wrong pH or a deficiency of organic matter can lead to very disappointing results.

Add a soil test to your fall garden routine, so you’ll have plenty of time to make any needed amendments. One less thing you’ll have to think when spring arrives! Most cooperative extension offices offer inexpensive testing services, or you can purchase a test kit and do it yourself.

To give you an idea of the process, we did our own soil test through the UVM Extension Office earlier this year. We wrote about the steps we took to get it tested, and then we got a UVM agriculture scientist to help us interpret the results

3. Dress it

Delivery truck dumps compost onto a tarp.Cover it with Compost. Like most living things, soil needs to be fed, and compost is the superfood of choice! Fall is actually the best time to add a trusted compost to your garden. This gives the beneficial microorganisms the entire winter to integrate the nutrient-rich compost into your soil, making them readily available to your plants in spring. Adding compost in fall has the added benefit of no sprouting seeds or emerging plants to get in the way of your application. Depending on your soil health, incorporating 2-6 inches of compost may be appropriate. If you add organic matter regularly, a fall application of 2-3 inches should be sufficient.

Check out our Compost Coverage Calculator to figure out how much compost you need based on the size of your garden.

Plant a cover crop. Planting cover crops such as vetch, rye, or clover before winter can give your soil a boost come spring. Cover crops protect soil from erosion, keep microbe communities active, and when tilled back into soil in spring, are a great source of organic material.

“Hey,” you might say, “what about hay?” Though not as nutrient-rich as compost and cover crops, spreading hay and/or straw on your soil will provide some degree of protection from the elements. Hay generally retains more moisture, but if it becomes too compact and damp may attract slugs and snails. Hay also contains weed seeds that may blow onto the rest of your garden and create problems next year. Straw, on the other hand,  is seed free and allows air to circulate through while also insulating the ground below. If going with hay or straw, always check with your supplier as hay and straw can be confused—even by the store clerk.

Stay warm, and garden happy!

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