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. We want to take advantage of the resources that nature provides us and sustainably cycle them back into the garden to supercharge our soil for next year. Below we cover the most important tasks to complete to winterize your garden successfully.
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:" taking extra green leafy growth and dropping it 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.
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.
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. Especially those that may not have gotten established well or are sensitive to frost.
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.
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 a plant, it's inevitable that you will lose some of your roots, so you want to prune more aggressively that you would normally to reduce the amount of root shock the plant has to deal with when being moved to a container.
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 acclimate (transferring from the ground to a pot is a larger shock than transplanting from pots or 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 through the winter.
If you want to see the difference between [the garden's] contribution and the gardener's, put the commonest weed it grows side by side with his hoes, rakes, shears, and a packet of weed killer; you have put beauty, energy, and fecundity beside dead, sterile things. Just so, our 'decency and common sense' show grey and deathlike beside the geniality of love.
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 provided, it can also provide food for micro-organisms in the soil as it breaks down.
One of the easiest natural mulches to use are 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 bags from your less aware neighbors or landscape services). If the leaves are shredded decompose much faster.
We have an electric leaf shredder which makes quick work of leaves, so we usually have a couple days in the fall where the kids enjoy gathering huge piles of leaves.
Gathering and shredding all the surrounding leaves we can find, we generate enough carbons to produce 1-2 cubic yards of compost.
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.
Note on: COVER CROPS
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.
Some cereal crops, like oats will grow throughout the winter, as well as some leguminous crops like Austrian winter peas.
Oat straw by the way is a great medicinal "herb" as it is known for lowering cholesterol and balancing endocrine function.
We go into much more detail about worm composting, bokashi (form of anaerobic composting), and hot composting in Turn Your Organic Waste Into Free Compost article.
Hot composting using the Berkeley method is an especially effective means of composting in the fall.
Even with freezing outside temperatures, temperatures inside the compost can get up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit in the pile. Here are some pointers to watch out for to be successful with hot composting.