Let me just gloat for a brief moment: I am one of the lucky ones. In my nook of the universe, we don’t get snow or freezing rain or those giant hail baseballs that make your new car look like the surface of a golf ball. The coastal area of northern California is groovy like that. Oh sure, we’ll get several days of severe frost, and episodes of biblical rain, but for the most part, The Fortress Garden can pass through winter relatively unscathed, without requiring the protective methods used in colder areas.
While I don’t need to resort to cold frames, row covers or burying everything under several feet of straw, there are still a lot of chores to do to prepare for the cold season. And by “chores,” I mean all the stuff I put off until now and will have to try to get done between the aforementioned biblical rain episodes and those days where it is way too chilly and damp to do anything other than lie by the fire watching reruns of Justified. I’ll take Raylan Givens over winter prep any day.
And yet, if I want to get the most out of The Fortress Garden, I can’t skip winterizing entirely. So down the path I go, armed with clippers, some empty tuna cans, several large cans of cheap beer, a small tarp, and, yes, even some straw scooped up from the barn floor at the local ranch where I keep my Appy mare, Josie. Even if you are not fortunate or foolhardy enough to have an Appaloosa mare (see “opinionated” in the dictionary), there’s probably a ranch or two around where you can score some straw shake.
Step 1: Clean Up
Sigh. Just the phrase “clean up” is enough to send me screaming for the bourbon bottle, but it’s key. Trimming and removing dead leaves from the artichokes means there’s a few less places for the bugs to hide. Cutting the raspberry and blackberry canes back should lead to a better crop next year, and pulling up any weeds that can’t be eaten—oh, how I’m looking forward to that chickweed salad!—will prevent the jungle-like overgrowth experienced in years past.
Bindweed is the major culprit this year; not only is it buckling my adorable brick path, but it’s made its way up into the raised beds and wrapped its nasty tendrils around my strawberry plants. Most online advice for eradicating this tenacious yet oddly pretty weed say to use an herbicide, but I won’t, so it’s pull, pull, pull and pull some more.
Step 2: Refresh
Before I plant or sow anything for my winter garden, I turn new soil into the boxes, and toss in some worm castings and a couple of handfuls of organic fertilizer. The garden paths get a new layer of green wood chips—a champion at keeping weeds at bay, due to it sucking all the nitrogen from the soil. I also spread the chips in a 3-foot swath outside the perimeter of the garden fence. This seems to help a lot with keeping weed seeds out in the first place. Doesn’t do much for bindweed, but it’s been awesome with most other plant pests.
Step 3: Protect
Really, the only plants I have to protect with cover are the strawberries. I give them a 2- to 3-inch layer of straw mulch, but I’m not even sure this is necessary. But they are called strawberries, after all, so at least it’s thematically correct.
Most of the other veggies (kale, of course, but also lettuce, chard and spinach) seem to handle our frosts without difficulty. In colder areas, plastic row covers, cold frames or deeper straw bedding might be necessary, but I tend to follow the “survival of the fittest” method of winter gardening: If a plant doesn’t survive, I don’t plant it next year.
I put tuna cans filled about three-quarters of the way up with beer in all the beds, to help control earwigs and other nasties.
That’s pretty much it. Now it’s back to the couch to watch that Raylan fella saunter around in his hat and blue jeans. Maybe winter’s not so bad after all.