Now that we’re well into the fall season, the weather is starting to feel more wintery — at least, it is where I am. As I write this, snow is lightly falling outside, blanketing the yard and the trees in velvety white.
For those of us who live in temperate climates, it’s safe to say that the gardening season is nearing its end for this year. We’ve spent months carefully cultivating our little patches of earth, and hopefully, we’ve been rewarded with a bounty of delicious home-grown foods. But now, with colder days approaching, it’s time to get our gardens ready for a long winter’s rest.
Why Winterize Your Garden Beds?
I’ll be honest; I never used to do anything to prepare my garden for winter. Around late August or early September, I usually lose steam for gardening; I get lazy about tending to my plants and I start to just let the little guys fend for themselves. When things start to wither, I let them go. And in the past, I never bothered with clearing out all the gnarled dead branches and leaves — I figured I’d just let nature take its course.
But I’ve learned that taking just a few simple steps to get the garden ready for winter can help ensure a better growing season next year. For one thing, clearing out all dead plant material creates a clean slate for next year, allows you to amend your soil if needed, and helps remove diseases and pests from your garden. If the plants were happy and healthy, they can also make good compost.
Amending your soil now with nutrients and organic matter gives them a chance to settle into the soil so that it’ll be ready for planting come spring. A layer of mulch will insulate your perennials, protect your garden beds, and keep weeds under control when the weather turns warm again. Now’s a great time to plant any spring-flowering bulbs, and there are even some cold-weather crops you can plant for late fall and early winter harvests.
How to Prepare Your Garden Beds for Winter
Winterizing your garden beds is fairly simple and doesn’t have to take a lot of time or effort. Simply follow these eight steps and your garden will be winter-ready.
1. Harvest any leftover fruit, veggies, herbs, and seeds.
If there’s anything left to harvest from your garden, now’s the time to go collect it. By this point in the season, there may not be much left, but make sure to harvest anything you might use. Produce can be frozen, canned, pickled, or made into preserves for a longer shelf life. Flowers and herbs can be bundled and hung up to dry.
One of my favorite parts of harvesting is gathering seeds for next year — it’s fun, easy, and saves you from needing to buy more seeds. It’s simple to harvest seeds from fruits and veggies like tomatoes, zucchinis, melons, peppers, and pumpkins. However, you can also gather seeds from herbs, flowers, and many other plants. All it takes is a little research to find where the plant stores its seeds — some have pods or capsules along their stems, while others store seeds at the base of their flowers.
To harvest seeds from a plant, let it go to seed and then wait for the seedheads or pods to completely ripen — then, you can extract the seeds and store them in labeled envelopes or baggies. A note here: if you’re in doubt about whether your seeds are ripe, wait a little longer! Harvesting too soon can give you immature seeds that won’t sprout. I like to wait until the plant has completed its life cycle and has started to dry out.
2. Move non-hardy plants inside.
If you want to keep some of your non-hardy plant babies alive through the winter, you can move them indoors to a place where they’ll get the light they need and be sheltered from the cold. Potted plants are the easiest to move, but you may also be able to dig up plants from the ground or garden beds and transplant them inside.
For this method to be successful, the plant does need to be fairly small; bigger ones have more developed root systems and are much harder to move. Some species also don’t like having their roots disturbed, period, and can die from transplant shock. I suggest doing research on the plant you intend to move to maximize your chances of a successful transplant.
3. Clear out all weeds and dead vegetation.
Removing all dead plant material from the garden is an essential step in getting your garden ready for winter. I’d say that if you were pressed for time and could only do one of these eight steps, it should be this one. The biggest risk with leaving dead plants in place is that it can allow insects, molds, and diseases to linger in your garden over the winter and re-infest next year’s plants. Bad news!
Start removing annuals from your garden as they begin to die off for the season. While you’re at it, pull any remaining weeds (roots and all) so they don’t come back with a vengeance in the spring. Healthy plant matter can be composted or discarded, but any disease or pest-infested material should be thrown in the trash or burned.
4. Cut back perennials as necessary.
Since perennial plants come back year after year, you don’t want to pull the roots from the ground — unless you want to remove the plant, that is. The above-ground parts of the plant (stems, leaves, and flowers) die back for the winter, while the roots or bulbs beneath the ground survive and send out fresh shoots the following spring.
Certain perennials can benefit from being trimmed to the ground once hard frosts have started to kill the leaves and stems. Bee balm, phlox, and hosta should all be trimmed since they can carry mildews and pest eggs. Other herbs and flowers do well with trimming, but certain types (especially evergreen perennials) should be left alone.
If you’re unsure about specific plants in your garden, The Old Farmer’s Almanac has more information on which perennials should and shouldn’t be trimmed.
5. Amend your soil as needed.
Now that you’ve cleared old plants out of your garden, you may want to take the opportunity to beef up your soil. If you had a stellar growing season and all of your plants stayed happy until the end, you might not need to worry about this step, but if you suspect that your soil quality is lacking, now’s a good time to make some adjustments.
You can buy kits to test pH, moisture, sunlight, and levels of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in your soil — or you can have your local nursery or gardening extension service test it for you. Once you have the results, you can add compost, manure, fertilizers, minerals, and other ingredients to balance out and enrich the composition of your soil.
If you’d rather not mess with testing or your soil’s not in need of a massive overhaul, you can’t go wrong with mixing some good-quality compost into your beds. Compost adds nutrients, boosts beneficial microbes, and improves soil texture for healthier plants.
6. Plant cold-weather veggies and bulbs.
Once you’re happy with your soil, it’s time to plant any cold-weather crops you’d like to grow. Even in temperate zones like mine — and I live in hardiness zone 6A — it’s not too late to plant leafy greens like spinach and kale, or veggies like carrots, garlic, and onions. While they may not survive the whole winter, you may still get a good harvest or two out of them.
Fall is also the time of year to plant any spring-flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils, or crocus — they need the cold of winter followed by spring warmth to snap out of their dormancy and grow. I planted some tulips and grape hyacinths in my front bed and I can’t wait to see how they turn out next year!
7. Cover up your soil and perennial plants.
With most of the hard work done, you can now cover your soil and perennial plants with mulch to put them to bed for the winter. Mulching protects your soil from erosion, helps it retain nutrients, and controls weed growth — and some mulches have the added benefit of enriching your soil.
You can use traditional mulches such as wood chips or straw, but one excellent (and free) alternative is to mulch with fallen leaves in your yard. All you have to do is run your lawn mower over piles of dry, crunchy leaves — the blades will chop the leaves down into a rich organic mulch that will break down and turn into compost for next year’s garden.
Whatever mulch you choose, layer it on top of any garden beds you’re done using for the season. Adding compost on top of and around perennial plants can give them some insulation and help them come back more vigorously in the spring.
Some gardeners opt to plant cover crops, such as winter rye, that can help build your soil while serving the same purposes as a mulch. Or, if nothing else, you can cover your garden beds with plastic, cardboard, or old carpet.
8. Reflect and make notes on the growing season.
At this point, all that’s left to do is look back on the growing season you had this year. What worked well? What didn’t work? If you have a garden journal — or if you’d like to start one — make notes on what you observed this year, how well your various plants grew, and what you might do differently next season.
Part of what makes gardening so fun and rewarding is trying different things, learning from experience, and becoming a more knowledgeable gardener each year. Keeping detailed notes can help you remember what you did in the past so that you can make your next growing season even better.
That’s it — you and your garden beds are now ready for winter! With these simple steps done, you can rest easy knowing that your garden will be ready and waiting for you in the spring. May you enjoy the remainder of this beautiful fall season and have a safe, peaceful winter.
Do you have any other fall gardening tips and tricks to share? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.
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