Life in the southeastern U.S. sometimes feels like summer is endless, but the fact is winter eventually does find us. And now is the time to start thinking about winterizing your garden area. Thankfully, the process of winterizing the garden to get it ready for the spring growing season is relatively easy. No matter if you use a traditional row garden or have a raised bed garden, winterization is essential. While there are a few different methods for winterizing, it’s good to know why this is a necessary step.
The Benefits of Winterizing your Garden
First, winterizing a garden after a full spring and summer of producing delicious vegetables and herbs helps to give the garden a well-deserved break. The soil that worked so hard to feed the plants in your garden space, needs to be re-energized with nutrients.
The second benefit of winterizing, is that you, the gardener, may need a rest yourself. If you aren’t planning to grow a fall or winter garden, then chances are you just need a bit of a rest. And that’s perfectly fine! Taking a break from the garden for the winter will give you the chance to get recharged and reinvigorated to grow an even better spring garden. This is especially true if you also go through the tasks of canning and preserving a lot of your summer garden goods. This is why I am so thankful that the process of winterizing is easy. Even the most worn out gardener can quickly put their garden to rest, recharging their soil and themselves at the same time.
Before Starting Winterization
Before you select the best method of winterizing, be sure to clean out any dead or dying plants from your garden space. Amy Stross, the author of The Suburban Micro-Farm, recommends taking out completely, roots and all, any plants that may have been diseased. Plants that were healthy can be cut off at the base. The top of the plant can be composted, and the roots are left in the ground for organisms living there.
The next thing you want to do is submit soil samples to your local Cooperative Extension office. Why do you need to do this? Well, it’s a fantastic service that most counties provides for very little cost to you. By simply grabbing the small cardboard boxes that your extension office provides, you are able to take multiple samples of soil from your garden and send them off to be analyzed. These soil samples help tell you exactly what your soil needs in the winter months in order to be ready for the spring. Are your nitrogen levels low? Should you be adding lime to your garden soil? Would you benefit from using a cover crop as your winterization technique? All of these questions can be answered with a soil analysis.
Methods of Winterizing the Garden
The Feed and Rest Method. This is my go-to method of winterizing my raised garden beds. Several years ago, I transitioned from a traditional row garden to using the square-foot gardening method in raised beds. (If you are not familiar with square foot gardening, I highly recommend Mel Bartholomew’s book Square Foot Gardening.) However, the Feed and Rest winterization method could easily be used in a traditional row garden as well.
This method involves feeding the soil with good quality compost, and then covering the garden beds with mulch or leaf matter. The compost feeds the soil, re-energizing it with nutrients. And the thick layer of leaves or mulch help keep weeds from taking over and also provide a nice insulating layer for your soil. This is the easiest method of winterizing. Come the spring, simply rake away the layer of mulch or leaves, add it to your compost pile or flower beds, and get to planting. Comfrey leaves, a perennial herb, can also be used as a mulch for winterizing, and then turned into the soil come spring. I do not recommend turning wood mulch into the garden soil in the spring.
The second winterizing method I recommend is cover cropping. This can be especially helpful if your soil analysis comes back with news your soil is greatly lacking in one nutrient or another. Cover cropping simply means to grow a certain crop that covers the garden bed and offers the soil some kind of benefit. The results of your soil analysis will clue you in to the best cover crop for your garden. Popular cover crops include clover and legumes as these help fix nitrogen in the soil. Mustard greens are a good cover crop and delicious too.
If using a raised bed for gardening, don’t use a cover crop that would need to be tilled in the spring. Raised beds should have loose soil and should not require tilling.
So, regardless of which method of winterization you choose, your soil will reap the benefits of having a much-needed rest. It will recharge through nutrient-rich compost or a cover crop that provides the soil with exactly what it needs. So before you hang up your garden trowel for the year, take just a little time to ensure that you have a great start to next year’s growing season.
This article first appeared in the winter 2018 edition of My Lenoir magazine.