By Rhonda Crank
Our farm, Fairhaven Farm, is in U.S. growing zone 8, so we are able to have a garden pretty much year-round. Late January and February is the most down time we see. However, many home gardeners are thinking of putting the garden to bed. Whether you live in a zone where you have snow, ice, hard freezing, or even permafrost, or in a more temperate zone like me, there are some basic preparations every gardener should perform while preparing vegetable gardens for winter.
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Remove Plant Debris
It’s absolutely necessary to remove any diseased plants from your garden. We burn all diseased plants. We don’t compost them. You may prefer tilling your garden, you may use raised beds exclusively, or use a combo like us. Whatever your preferred garden style, the first thing you should do in preparing vegetable gardens for winter is remove or incorporate all the plant debris from your garden.
If you till your garden, you can till healthy plant debris into the soil. Doing this helps to improve drainage, introduce oxygen, relieve compaction, and enrich the soil. If you prefer to remove all debris from your garden, you can compost it, or feed it to your livestock, just as long as it’s something that’s safe for them to ingest.
We pull ours and lay it down, then we rotate the chickens through the garden one section at a time until they have scratched and incorporated the debris for us, at least what they didn’t eat. Once they have completed a section or two, we add any fertilizer we feel necessary and begin laying a fresh layer of mulch over the area.
We are organic, non-GMO farmers, so we do not use any chemicals. We fertilize by using our vermiposted soil (composting done with worms), compost tea, cover crops, and manure from our animals that are fed a non-GMO, organic diet. We also use BioWash. Fall is a great time to introduce nutrients to your garden since it’s used up so much to produce its bounty for you.
Of course you can use any fertilizer you choose, including purchasing organic fertilizer. We like fertilizing in the fall to allow the winter rains to carry the fertilizer deep into the soil as it passes through the mulch, cover crops, or tilled soil. If you do leave your tilled soil open for the winter, it’s a good idea to till in two directions to help prevent so much soil runoff.
Mulch or Till
Our garden is 100-feet by 50-feet, and we have planting containers and raised beds in addition to that. We have deep mulched about half of our garden. The plan is to get at least another quarter of it deep mulched this winter as part of our goal to have the whole area deep mulched. We want to do away with the need for any tilling, except in the feed plot.
By “deep mulch” gardening I mean three to six inches of mulch material. We use leaves, pine straw, and decayed wood or wood chips because they are abundant resources here on the farm.
We also use cover crops in the fall and winter. Our personal favorite cover crop is buckwheat. Not only will buckwheat enrich the soil, it makes beautiful flowers which the honey bees love, providing food for them at this late time of the year. Planting buckwheat in an uncultivated area you would like to use as garden space is a great way to choke out weeds and grass and enrich the best soil for crops in preparation for planting.
Planting cover crops is very easy and beneficial to your soil. You can always check with your local extension office to find what grows best in your area. The best green manure crops protect your soil from erosion, as well as boosting the organic matter in your soil. Most people lay their cover crops down by cutting or tilling them into the ground before they are able to form seeds. We allow our buckwheat to go to seed and come up a second time. Before it seeds again, we cut it down and leave it laying there until the chickens take care of it.
Across the southern U.S., we are planting our fall crops. Of course, we are careful with our crop rotation to ensure we don’t abuse the soil and have bad crops. Our favorite winter crops are broccoli, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, beets, radishes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, and of course, turnips and collard greens!
Update Your Garden Journal
Keeping a garden journal is essential to successful crop rotation, plant production, keeping track of any disease, weather patterns, what you liked and didn’t like, what you planted and how much, so many aspects of gardening. You will find the one I use on The Farmer’s Lamp website. Fall is the best time to be sure all of your notes are in order. This will give you accurate information when you look back over the year during the winter.
Doing this allows you to make decisions and improvements without trying to “remember everything,” which is more challenging for some of us than others.
Every experienced gardener knows there’s more involved in preparing vegetable gardens for winter than just the garden work. Here are a few extra garden chores (like anyone needs more chores), which will make our spring gardening experience better, if we do them now.
Remove and drain any irrigating system, like soaker hoses, water hoses, water jugs, etc.
Inspect, repair, and clean your tools. My grandfather taught me to keep my shovels, hoes, and blades in a bucket of oil or sand to prevent rust and dullness.
Organize all your garden supplies taking a careful evaluation of what you used, and did not use, what you will need to repurchase, that sort of thing. You may also want to take note of any expiration dates and temperature restrictions of your supplies, especially botanicals as they tend to be temperature sensitive.
You can find more gardening help on our website at http://thefarmerslamp.com/category/garden/.
Hopefully, you’ve gained some help or at least been spurred to some thoughts and ideas from spending your time with me. You can always contact me with any questions or concerns and I will do all I can to get you the help you need. So get out there and start preparing vegetable gardens for winter, or get those fall crops planted.
Originally published in Countryside August/September 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.