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Permaculture Tasks in Winter
Winterizing your garden should ideally begin in late fall. This is the time that deciduous trees naturally shed their leaves and store energy for next year's growth.
We want to take advantage of the resources that nature provides us and sustainably cycle them back into the garden. A few intentional actions such as composting, done in the late fall or winter can help us prepare for the coming spring.
1. clean up & maintenance
The first thing we want to do in our garden is tidy up plants from the summer season. Annual summer crops like tomatoes, squash, and beans will be starting to drop off in production now, and may even have started to wilt.
Now is the best time to do a final harvest of summer crops, gathering any green tomatoes, leaves from summer herbs (basil, thyme, lavender, etc.), and items that can be dried or ripened inside (figs, pole beans, etc.).
Once we've done our harvest, clean up annual veggie plants in your bed by cutting the plant stems off at the soil level.
By retaining the root system in the soil, the roots will gradually die off over the winter and provide a ready source of accessible nutrients for the next wave of plants going in.
Put all the vines, leaves, etc. you've removed in a compost heap/bin. Make sure to cut them up into smaller lengths for faster composting. For perennials, perform some last "chopping and dropping." This term "chopping and dropping" simply means taking extra green leafy growth and dropping it directly into your garden as you cut it off.
It's best to hold off on doing any pruning of fruit trees in your garden until the late winter when they are more dormant.
Cut at stem-level
If you'd like to extend your growing season into the winter, there are a number of options for protecting your fall and winter plants from frosts.
The "Gardening For All 4 Seasons" article has details on how to build a low tunnel hoop house, as well as information on cold frames and hardy crops to grow during the winter months.
Click HERE to learn more about building a "hoop house."
Now is also the time to repot certain plants that you would still like to "baby" and bring indoors. These could include perennials such as berries or trees that have not yet established themselves and are in pots. Or pots of favored herbs, and flowers!
You can even bring in some nominally perennial plants like hot/sweet peppers that are perennials in tropical environments but normally die off with the first frosts in temperate environments.
If you have room in a garage or sunny room in your house, you can bring in some of your perennial herbs, fruits or veggies and put them there.Especially those that may not have gotten established well or are sensitive to frost.
Keep original soil
Before you dig out your plants, make sure that you have pruned them to remove extra branches and leaves.
Remember that a plant in perfect balance has an equal volume of roots below ground, and branches/leaves above ground.
When you transplant, it's inevitable that you will lose some of your plant's roots. So prune more aggressively than you normally would. This will reduce the amount of root shock that the plant has to deal with when being moved to a new container.
Keep as much of the original soil (especially around the roots) with the transplanted plant as possible.
Water around each plant that you'd like to repot indoors before digging around the rootball of the plant. Loosely shake the soil off the roots and rebury in your target pot. Make sure there is enough extra room in the pot to account for growth throughout the winter.
If you are leaving the pot outdoors for a while before bringing it in, make sure that you move the pot out of the sun to allow the plant to acclimatize to its new surroundings.
(Note: Transferring from the ground to a pot is a greater shock to the plant than transferring it from pots or seedling flats into the ground.)
Once you cleaned up the old plants in your yard, it's important to feed and preserve the life in the soil over the winter by keeping it covered and moist.
The purpose of mulching is two-fold:
- It acts as a protective blanket for the soil against some of the harsh environmental conditions of winter (dry, cold temperatures, wind).
- If the right kind of mulch is used, it can also provide food for micro-organisms in the soil as it breaks down.
One of the easiest natural mulches to use is shredded leaves. Since trees lose their leaves in the fall, we can get them for free! These leaves can be quickly gathered using a leaf rake (or in conveniently acquired bags from your less aware neighbors or landscape services.)
If the leaves are shredded, they decompose much faster.
We have an electric leaf shredder which makes quick work of leaves. In the fall, there are usually a couple days where our kids enjoy gathering huge piles of them.
By gathering and shredding all the surrounding leaves we can find, we generate enough carbons to produce 1-2 cubic yards of compost.
Shred/Mow leaves if possible
If you have trouble with wind blowing away your leaves or finding a way to shred the leaves, you can also use straw, wood chips, grass clippings, or even pine needles as mulch.
If you are able to plan ahead a bit, one of the most effective mulches is a green mulch produced by growing hardy cover crops in your beds and chopping them down in the early spring.
John Jeavons goes deeper into the concept of compost crops in his teaching. Here is a handout comparing different cover crops taken from the Ecology Action 2-Week Farmer Course.
According to Nyle Brady and Ray R Weil, authors of "The Nature and Properties of Soils"
"The roots remaining underground after a harvest are 15-40% the aboveground crop."
These roots from your cover crops can serve as a rich source of additional biomass that can help build the carbon in your soil and boost soil fertility in the spring.
In conventional agriculture the soil is only prepared 5.7 centimeters deep or 6 inches. Our job as permaculture gardeners is to challenge ourselves to see how deep we can prepare the soil for our food crops to grow in.
Here are our favorite choices for cover crops
- Crimson Clover
- Austrian Winter Pea
We go into much more detail about worm composting, bokashi (form of anaerobic composting), and hot composting in our Turn Your Organic Waste Into Free Compost blog article.
Hot composting using the Berkeley method is an especially effective means of composting in the fall.
Even with freezing outside temperatures, inside the compost it can get up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Here are some pointers to watch out for to be successful with hot composting.
Urine is a great activator
- Make sure that the 25:1 ratio of carbons (browns) to nitrogen (greens) is close
- Spike your compost with an active component. We like to use horse manure but you could use comfrey compost tea or even urine.
- Your heap needs to be at least .5 cubic yards to get the party started for the bacteria and microorganisms in the center of the pile.
- Turn your compost every 2 days to speed up the process greatly. A handy tool we found for this is a compost crank, which is much easier than doing a complete turnover and is almost as effective.
Hopefully, this article has helped you think of starting to winterize now or playing "catch up" to the season if you haven't yet closed down the remains of your summer/fall harvests.
A great supplement to fall into winter growing would be joining our
Monthly Garden Planning Session in November!
Audio Version "read-aloud" of this blog
Thanks so much for this. I never thought about having the same amount of root as the top of the plant and to prune to that amount when I bring things in. Excellent tip!
Great article! Thank you David and Niki!!
Always happy to help you, Laurel!
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Thanks for sharing!