Putting a Garden to Bed for the Winter
Photo courtesy of Peterson Garden Project
We think that diamonds are very important, gold is very important, all these minerals are very important. We call them precious minerals, but they are all forms of the soil. But that part of this mineral that is on top, like it is the skin of the Earth, that is the most precious of the commons.
~Wangari Maathai (1940–2011)
The days are getting shorter and cooler, and the garden is showing signs of wanting to be put to rest. Many gardeners enjoy looking back to see what they have grown or what they will continue to produce for the next few months. Some are surely disappointed because they wish to garden year-round, but that is just not possible in the Midwest. We should always be aware of the next crop going in, such as planting garlic in the fall or the first crop in spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Either way, preparing the garden for winter correctly will save us time next season.
The first step in putting the garden to bed is to harvest all of the remaining fruits and vegetables on the plants, from the smallest peppers and root crops to the leafy greens. Then remove and discard any diseased plants like tomatoes with blight, vine crops with powdery mildew and any other questionable-looking plants. Do not put these in with the compost; separating and trashing them is best because even the hottest backyard compost pile cannot kill spores on diseased plants. Now is the time to take notes, photographs or videos of where the plants were located this growing season. Avoid planting the same family of plant in the same area two years in a row because that can promote disease and deplete vital nutrients that some plants take from the soil, while others put them back.
To achieve minimal soil disturbance, do not till the garden in the fall. A rototiller can do structural damage to the soil web. Instead, use a garden fork in the spring and fall. This is a special tool with heavy, flat, metal tines designed to loosen the soil to do less damage, much like a broad fork. This is not a pitchfork or hay fork; their structure and purposes are different.
Fluff the soil with the fork while pulling out weeds and aerating it. This is the best time to add some amendments to feed and build the soil. They may include partially broken-down plant- or animal-based compost, as well as coffee grounds and other fillers. The proper application of these amendments is to work them into the top two to four inches of soil to allow the microbes and worms to finish the breakdown process over the winter. Other amendments such as fertilizer should not be added at this time because they will be ineffective and used up by spring; most fertilizer, even slow-release, will lose its potency after a few months.
The most free and abundant resource available is leaves in the fall. Whether saving them over the winter to make leaf compost or applying them directly over the soil, leaves are nutrient-dense and beneficial for the garden. Tree roots go deep down into the earth, and all of those nutrients are circulated through the tree into the leaves, enhancing them to become exceedingly beneficial to the soil. About two feet of this leaf mulch over the top of the garden bed is good. The smaller the particles, the quicker they break down, so a leaf mulcher or lawn mower is handy, but not necessary, because the leaves can also be applied without mulching. In the spring, rake the leaves away, plant and then replace the leaves around the plant as a mulch.
Putting a garden to bed can greatly reduce the overall amount of time needed in maintenance, from preparation to planting. This will also give us a good idea of what changes we can make in the next planting season.
Joey and Holly Baird are the founders of The Wisconsin Vegetable Gardener, an online how-to resource for home gardeners. For information on vegetable gardening and more, visit TheWisconsinVegetableGardener.com.