Preparing Your Garden for Fall & Winter
Sure, the end of summer is a bummer, but fall is great in its own ways. Fall is certainly the most picturesque time of year, and it provides that specific New-England feel that many seek out. Even those fall-time activities and foods, which became trite long ago, are anticipated. Pumpkin pie and caramel apples are delicious, football presents the perfect theatre to have friends and family over and at a country fair you’ll be able to see that band that you haven’t thought of since the 80s (probably Foghat) or the 90s (Sugar Ray, maybe?). As winter approaches you can even await a reduction in yard work. Although it’s hard to figure out if an end to yard work is actually a good thing, because it also means a break in your gardening schedule.
It’s almost time to winterize your garden and start getting ready for next year’s growing season. Winterizing your garden is an important factor in future growing success, so it is a process that every gardener should consider. When winterizing your garden, there are 3 crucial aspects: clean up, nourishment and protection.
Cleaning up after this year’s growing season is not only important for the aesthetics of your garden, but it is also necessary for combating the proliferation of disease and pests. The removal of all dead or dying plant matter is a good place to begin. Bacteria, fungus, disease and insects linger in spent plant matter, and if leaves, stalks, roots, et cetera are left behind, these pathogens can overwinter and reappear in the upcoming growing season. If you haven’t had any problems this season, adding plant matter to a compost pile is a good way to recycle it. However, if you’ve had pests, disease, bacteria or fungus, the plant matter shouldn’t be added to compost piles. It will infect the pile, rendering it useless, and if you happen to use infected compost, it could have serious consequences on your garden.
After clearing out plant matter, you’ll want to address any other aspects of your garden that need cleaning or clearing out, like raised beds or a cold frame. If you use a cold frame, the fall is a good time to clean it. After all, nothing is worse than having to prepare your cold frame in freezing temperatures. The final step in the cleaning process is to disinfect gardening tools and plant supports. A mild bleach solution works just fine. Simply mix bleach and water at a 1 to 10 ratio, rinse your tools and make sure to air dry them before they are put into storage.
Your garden’s soil provides a nutrient-rich homestead for your plants, so its well-being cannot be overlooked. Revitalizing the soil each year can significantly improve the health of your garden and lead to greater success. Compost is a wonderful option. Whether it’s homemade or store bought, compost is a great source of nutrients and organic matter. You can efficiently nourish the soil as you clean up by adding compost as you remove plants. Use a garden fork to mix about 3 inches to 4 inches of compost into the space that the plants had previously occupied. For flower gardens you won’t need as much compost – 2 inches to 3 inches should be enough. Surrounding established plants with compost can also support the soil’s health. Adding just 2 inches to 3 inches around the stem – without actually touching the stem – can help to replenish the soil surrounding those plants.
Raw organic matter other than compost can also be helpful. Working shredded leaves or manure into the soil are both good options. Fall, in particular, is a good time of year for using manure, because the ammonia will breakdown over the winter, leaving the soil with organic matter and nutrients by the next growing season. When adding raw organic matter, supplemental nitrogen is usually necessary. The organisms that breakdown organic matter depend on nitrogen, and they deplete nitrogen levels in the soil overtime. To fight depletion, a cover crop – which we’ll talk about shortly – nitrogen-rich manure or granular fertilizer can help.
Autumn is also an ideal time of year to test and address soil levels, due to the fact that altering the soil needs to be done slowly over time. Using a soil testing kit, like the Soil Testing Kit sold at Growers Supply, will not only test for nitrogen, but also pH, phosphorous and potash levels. pH in particulate need to be raised or lowered slowly, so the break in growing seasons is an excellent time for making adjustments. Adding lime can help to boost pH, while peat moss, pine needles and elemental sulfur will help to lower it. If potassium levels become too low, removing weeds and excess vegetation is a good start, and if this doesn’t help, adding kelp meal or granite meal can help to replenish phosphours levels. To increase the soils phosphorous content, also remove weeds and other plants, and then try adding rock phosphate or bone meal.
Providing protection is key to the garden’s future health. Cover crops are commonly used, because they can provide protection and nourishment. Cover crops are like insulation in a house, and help to limit damage caused by drastic temperature fluctuations. The downside of using cover crops is that they require more work, but depending on the crop you use, they can address problem areas, like low nitrogen, erosion, weeds, soil compaction or a lack of organic matter.
Some of the more common cover crops are:
- Oats absorb and store nutrients, and they can benefit the soil once they are worked in at the beginning of spring. They require less work than other cover crops, because they die over the winter and don’t need as much tillage. They should be planted six to eight weeks before a hard frost is expected at 1.5 pounds per 1000 square feet.
- Winter Rye and Buckwheat fight weeds, because they use the sunlight and water needed by weeds, as well as produce chemicals that are harmful to weeds. This cover crop continues to grow in late fall and winter. They shouldn’t be planted too late though, because they won’t have the time to develop properly. Their thick stalks are a good source of organic matter, and can be mixed into the ground in early spring. Just make sure you allow it the time it needs to decompose. These crops should be planted at 2 pounds per 1000 square feet 2 to 4 weeks before frost.
- Ryegrass is a good crop for replenishing nitrogen, and it can also help with soil compaction. Its roots dive 3 feet to 5 feet into the ground, which breaks up the soil. It is important to remove this crop before it goes to seed, because it will hinder future growing. Ryegrass should be planted 40 days before frost is expected.
- Legumes are also great for boosting nitrogen. Crimson clover is good for gardens in the South, while hairy vetch is a good option for those in the North. In the spring these crops can simply be mowed, and they should generally be planted at about 1/2 pound per 1000 square feet.
In the spring cover crops can be mowed, and then once they have decomposed, tilled into the soil.
Mulch can also provide coverage and protection over the winter months, although it doesn’t add nutrients to the soil. Mulch can help to maintain moisture, fight weeds and support proper soil temperatures. Since mulch does help to moderate soil temperatures, gardeners covering with mulch can usually start planting earlier.
Fall means the end of gardening for the year, but winterizing provides you with one last chance to enjoy this year’s garden. However with the proper perspective, it actually marks the beginning of next year’s garden; winterizing isn’t dismantling your current garden, it’s preparing next year’s. Following a winterizing plan every year keeps your garden healthy and enables you to succeed not only next season, but also for years to come.