Although October is typically gloriously sunny and warm, it signals the end of the gardening season here in NE Missouri. I’ve already pulled my cucumbers, cantaloupe, and zucchini out of the ground, and will soon strip my tomato vines and pepper plants. I’ll let winter squash remain in the ground through the first frost, and will continue to harvest beets, carrots, Chinese cabbage and kale through the winter.
Preparing my garden for winter months is a task that I actually look forward to each year. It’s an opportunity for me to reflect upon the abundance of the harvest season, and yet also a chance to rest and renew my enthusiasm for next year’s garden (bigger and better!).
As I put the garden to bed, I like to remember the FIVE C’s of preparing for winter: Compost, Cover, Collect, Create, and Celebrate.
Preparing Your Garden for Winter
As I pull plants out of the garden, I immediately bring them to one of three compost piles: The first is a slower composting pile for for large woody stemmed plants such as sunflower stalks, or tomato vines. The second is for leafy greens such as brown kale leaves, or rotting tomatillos. The third pile, separate from the others, and outside the garden fence, is for invasive weeds that I’m trying to remove from the garden.
It may seem easier to leave dead plants in the garden, but I have found that when my garden is properly prepped in the fall, and all spent garden plants are properly composted, that I am rewarded with not only a much healthier garden, but also a much quicker and easier spring bed preparation.
Whether you like to cover your soil with mulch or with a cover crop, it is essential to cover that bare soil! I typically cover my garden beds with 6 inches of straw mulch, but leaf mulch is also a great cover (and abundant in fall!). In the spring, I simply move the mulch layer to the path to allow the sun to warm the soil, do my seeding or transplanting, and replace the straw when plants have grown up a few inches.
I’ve also used a winter rye cover crop in the upper garden. I thickly sowed the rye and lightly raked it into the soil in early fall. The rye overwintered well, and produced a vigorous crop in the spring, which was hoed into the soil.
Fall is a great time to save seeds! Love those brilliant orange cosmos and zinnias that you grew this year? Save some seed! Did you grow a fantastic heirloom tomato or melon whose flavor knocked your socks off? Save some seed!
Here’s a great resources for saving seed: Seed Savers Exchange Seed Saving Instructions
And one about Saving Heirloom Seeds.
Fall is the perfect time to create new sheet mulch (or lasagna garden) beds. In fact, my compost pile for leafy vegetation is in my new sheet mulched bed. As I remove healthy, but spent plants, I simply heap them onto my bed of straw, horse and cow manure, and food scraps. I’ll continue to layer throughout the fall, and in the spring, the bed will be ready to plant. Plus, the bed will be chock full of fertility. (Just be warned that this approach yields lots of volunteers, but I don’t consider that a bad thing!)
For more information about how to create a sheet mulch garden, check out these posts:
Create an Instant Garden with Sheet Mulching
Building Soil with Lasagna Gardening
Yes, you’ve worked incredibly hard this spring, summer, and fall, providing food for your family and your community. Now it’s time to celebrate your accomplishments. Make a huge feast with the remaining harvest or organize a harvest potluck with your neighbors and let that hard work fill your bellies and spirit.
If you had particularly successful crops, or found that you loved the flavor of a particular variety, write it down! You may think that you will remember all the details of this year’s garden, but trust me, a few months of knitting by the fire later, and the details get very, very fuzzy! I have an all-purpose journal that I write my seed order in each year, and I like to make a few notes about seeds to purchase in the coming year.
This year, I’m celebrating a particularly successful year of growing potatoes and root vegetables. I look forward to these crops filling my family’s belly all through the Autumn. I’m also thrilled that I have a large amount of kale in the ground. When covered with row cover and plastic low tunnels, the kale will overwinter nicely, providing us with greens all winter long!
After you have finished preparing your garden for winter, I’d love to hear from you: What was most successful in your garden this year? What are you looking forward to planting next year?
Ryan Scott says
Thank you for this post.
Jo-Ella Mullins says
I am new to gardening per say. My second year of having a garden and it has been challenging for me. Always a learning process. I live in west Michigan, pretty good soil here. I did not cover my garden area after removing plants before snow fell. It sounds like that is important and could affect my new gardening season. With spring coming soon what can I do if anything before planting starts ? Also, do you roto till your soil each season ?
Teri Page says
I wouldn’t worry about not covering the garden last year, but keep it in mind for the future! I don’t rototill often (usually only if I’m really desperate with a new bed!), but we do gently fork the soil each year, and apply compost and/or manure before planting into the bed. It’s important to wait until the soil is dry before you starting working it. Good luck!
Jo-Ella Mullins says
One more question if you don’t mind. Our snow is finally gone and I thought about spreading a large heavy tarp I saved on my garden area in the hopes to keep weeds from starting. My thinking is the tarp which is black will hopefully kill or at least keep the weeds from growing before I can start planting. Do you think this would be a good plan ?
Teri Page says
Yes, that will work! It will also heat up the soil below, which can be good if you’re trying to get a kick-start on your garden! And it will keep the soil from getting wetter.
Thank you for this. I appreciate your approach to gardening because your philosophy so closely matches my own. Generally I’m doing the FIVE C’s year round, but, as you said, it is especially important this time of year when looking ahead to next spring. Haven’t graduated to cover cropping yet. Couldn’t tell you exactly why I’m hesitant. Generally I tuck my beds in with lots of leaves, grass, hay, etc.
If I had to pick what was especially successful in my garden this year it would be how well our soil in the extension we made to our garden performed. Better than the soil that I’ve worked and amended for years. Must be the girls (chickens). 🙂 And the sheet mulching!
Teri Page says
I rarely use cover crops as well, but this year I am feeling a bit adventurous and I”m giving the rye a try! I usually prefer to just cover them, but since the upper garden is brand new, I’m curious if the rye will add some needed fertility. THanks for your comment!
You have to let your garden sit for one to three weeks after you work the rye down in the spring. Three weeks is better than one.Rye gives off a chemical that will kill other plants as it is breaking down. Otherwise it’s a great cover crop.