I always feel a strange sense of forlorn relief at this time of year, as I glance over the garden-in-twilight. The tomato vines worked so hard this summer, but their leaves are now brown and pendulous, crisply rasping against each other in the fall breeze. The okra has long given up the fight since the first cold night, and the eggplant is pushing out a last, futile blossom that will never turn into fruit. I am tired from a full Ozark summer blessed by food from my plot. But even though the first hard frost grants me a welcome reprieve, I’ll miss crouching among the warm, green-smelling rows and caring for my plants. Cleaning up the garden for winter is a gardener’s paradox, if you will. We long for a break from the weeding and mulching and sore knees, but as soon as that break comes, we spend the winter dreaming through seed catalogs like a bride-to-be looking through wedding magazines.
Maybe you’re in a similar spot, glancing over your threadbare plot. You know it’s time to clean up the garden for the winter. Even though you may be a little worn out from planting, weeding, watering, bug-battling, and harvesting, taking the time to “finish strong” with your garden will help you get a jump start on next season…and may even get you a bonus harvest in the for your troubles! Before you put your feet up by the woodstove with a mug of something warm and comforting, let’s take a look at what can be done to shut down the garden for the year.
Cleaning Up the Garden for Winter
The first order of business is to remove spent plants. Even though they can’t offer any more food for your table, all that garden debris is compost-to-be, which makes it valuable. It may be a little more work, but, insuring your future garden’s fertility (instead of jamming it into garbage bags and tossing it to the curb to spend eternity in a landfill) is well worth the effort.
Additionally, dead plants left standing can serve a more insidious purpose. Garden pests will use them as shelters during the winter, giving them an inside-edge when it comes to undoing your hard work in the spring.
If you have any diseased plants, these need to have a different fate than the compost pile—throwing them there will potentially only reintroduce the disease when you spread the compost in the following season. Send them to a fiery demise in a cozy, fall fire to cut the cycle of disease short.
Mulch: A Gardener’s Best Friend
So you’ve got all the dead plants out and now probably have an empty plot again. Care for that hardworking soil and tuck it in for the night with a solid blanket of something protective. Exposed topsoil is an invitation for unpleasantness—it can be blown away into dust, washed away with rain, or pounded and compacted by the combined effect of all the winter weather. A garden left naked over the winter will not be in prime condition for growing anything come spring.
There are several options to take when it comes to a veggie patch’s winter coat. One choice could be to apply a thick layer of mulch over the garden in its entirety. This will protect the soil, but will also break down slowly over winter’s chill, adding more nutrients to your plot. Organic mulch choices are really easy to find—large amounts of grass clippings, fall leaves, and soiled poultry bedding are all prime candidates for cloaking your garden. On our homestead, we use all three, in whatever order they are available (though, with the duck flock, soiled straw bedding is always in amazingly ample supply!)
A second option is a cover crop or green manure. For those unfamiliar, this is a plant that you sow in the late fall that can fix nitrogen, suppress other weeds, protect the soil from erosion, provide a root matrix that aerates the soil, and, ultimately, will end up being dug into the topsoil in early spring to provide a good boost of nutrition to the soil before planting. Good candidates for a garden are alfalfa, winter rye, hairy vetch, or clover.
A third option is to have a fall and winter garden. Even some of the coldest growing regions can have food coming from the garden 12 months a year! Onward to the next point…
Fall and Winter Garden Crops
If you’re the sort who has a bit more of a long-term view, you may have secreted away some seeds into the soil after the worst of summer’s heat had passed. With some careful timing and planting, your fall garden may be yielding swiss chard, spinach, beets, carrots, radishes, kale, and even an early spring harvest of parsnips and garlic. Though some plants will benefit from cold frames during the worst of the winter—lettuce being an example—you’d be surprised what some of these cold-hardy veggies can endure. Scott and Helen Nearing made a lifestyle of gardening through the winter—and they lived in the frigid climes of Maine! They detail their gardening practices in their book The Good Life. I figure, if they can eat out of the garden in the middle of their near-arctic winters, I surely can make do with my much milder Ozark chills!
Winter Garden Pruning
Permaculture is a big focus on our homestead, and it may be on yours as well. With perennial plants dotting the landscape, fall and winter are prime times for doing that most counter-intuitive of tasks: pruning. No matter how much I do it, I’ll never quite be accustomed to taking pruner and saw to the plants I’ve worked so hard to protect. But the knowledge that this is exactly what will lead to vigorous spring growth gets me out there, carefully cropping my apple trees, lavender bushes, and other perennials.
Each plant has a specific set of needs when it comes to pruning, but the logic behind the timing is the same. While the plant is dormant in the advancing cold and dark of late fall and winter, take the opportunity to make cuts while the plant isn’t growing and the threat of fungus and insect invasion is at its lowest.
Winter Garden Tool Care
Tools are like extensions of our arms while we duke it out with unwanted roots and hard clods of dirt. But once the autumn leaves begin to fall, they often end up in a gardening bag, bucket, or even an unkempt pile in the garage until returning birds and budding trees call them back into service. After a winter in disuse, however, tools can be a rusty shadow of their former glory—hardly an encouraging sight amidst emerging sprouts and the first crocuses of the year.
The gardening off-season is a perfect opportunity to give your tools a little TLC before they go into storage for the winter. Not only will this make your tools last much, much longer, it will give you a literal edge when it comes to jumping into the new gardening season. Grab some sandpaper, a rasp, pliers, some vegetable oil, and paper towels, and set yourself up by the woodstove for an evening of tool care.
First, clean off any dirt that is still clinging to the tool surface—brushing it off with a wire brush may make short work of that. If rust is starting to spot the surfaces of your trowels or hori-hori knives, buff it away with the sandpaper to reveal shiny new metal. Try to bend any warped garden forks back into their proper shape, but don’t wrench them too much—too much manipulation of the metal will weaken it significantly. Once everything has been cleaned, sanded, or sharpened, finish the job by coating each metal tool and wooden handle with a protective coating of oil—vegetable oil works fine, though you can use all-natural oils like linseed or tung oil for wooden handles to offer an extra layer of waterproofing if you’d like! Once your tools are done with their spa day, store them in a dry container until it’s time to start putting seeds in the ground again.
It may seem like a lot to do at the end of a long season, but this sort of thoughtful shut-down of the garden will have you primed for action when the winter has run its course. And when the last bit of mulch is spread, the garlic cloves are buried deep in their bed, and the tools are glistening and clean, that worn-out green thumb will probably not go too long before it starts itching again.