By the time winter rolls around, we’re all looking forward to the much-needed downtime. Depending on your climate and your greenhouse situation, you might still have a handful of active plantings throughout winter. Kale, collards, covered carrots and other fall crops can often withstand a good portion of the average winter. Even so, the winter slowdown offers the perfect opportunity to prep for the next growing season. Here are some ways to prepare while still having time to relax.
1. Clean Up Debris
Clear out your existing annuals and compost them to improve next year’s soil fertility. By removing old growth, you can help eliminate overwintering pests and plant diseases. The heat of composting will largely eliminate harmful organisms that would otherwise be happy to hibernate in your garden bed. In spring, rotate your crops throughout the garden beds to further prevent damage from insects and disease.
2. Cover Crop
Depending on your location and the duration of your growing and market season, consider sowing a cover crop to protect your soil and improve its fertility. If your season ends after the spring or early summer harvest, planting a cover crop, such as oats or field peas, might make sense. These plants will grow through fall and die off when the winter frosts hit. The root structure and biomass of the plants will help keep the soil in place and provide a protective cover above the ground.
Alternatively, planting cover crops like winter rye or winter wheat at the end of summer or in early fall will provide similar advantages and give you improved protection during the transition from winter to spring. These crops can be tilled under as green manure in the new season.
Without a cover crop, the soil will be left bare and vulnerable. The last thing you want is to lose your soil to erosion or destruction by the harsh elements of winter. If you don’t have time for cover-cropping or you’ve waited too long, don’t fret. Your next best option is to put down a layer of leaves and straw to help protect the top layer of soil. If you have finished compost, spread a layer of it under the straw so it will be ready for you to plant come springtime.
3. Plan for Next Year
Once the soil is tucked in and put to bed for the winter, break out a pad and paper—or a digital tablet—and start planning next year’s garden layout. Crop rotation is always a good idea, whether you move crops between various beds or simply plant on the opposite side of the garden. I like looking at our companion-planting books to see which crops benefit one another so I can try to work them into the layout side by side. At a minimum, think back to what worked and what didn’t during the last growing season and make the necessary changes. Did something get shaded out last year? Were customers asking for veggies that you neglected to plant? Jot these items down while the memories are still fresh in your mind.
4. Order Seeds
Winter is a good time to plan your seed orders—you can start a list of what you’d like to order based on this year’s successes and failures. Perhaps a certain type of veggie didn’t produce as well as you’d hoped. Get on the computer or bury yourself in a seed catalog to find a variety that may better suit your soil and climate characteristics. With a little extra time spent researching the pros and cons of different species, you’ll greatly improve your chances of success next season.
5. Clean and Repair Tools
After a long season of digging, weeding and harvesting, your tools are surely in need of a little TLC. Sharpening blades during the winter can save you valuable time come spring, when new growth catches you by surprise. Repairing tires, changing oil and running through a maintenance schedule for all your equipment will ensure a longer life and give you a head start next growing season.
Winter is also a great time for reflection. What new tools and infrastructure would you love to have this coming year? The holidays are always filled with gifts of new implements around our house. Now is the time to plan if you hope to erect a new greenhouse, harvesting station, or maybe even build a root cellar once the ground warms up.
6. Grow Your Business
It’s hard to plan for growth and forge new relationships during the height of the busy growing season. Take advantage of the slower season by visiting with local chefs, researching new market opportunities or developing plans for a CSA. Heading into spring with business goals will help guide you through the hustle and bustle while keeping your eye on the prize.
That said, winter is a welcome time to relax and recuperate. Many of the tasks at hand are mental and will give your body a chance to recover. It’s important to make the most of this downtime and be prepared for the next season, but remember to enjoy your time away from farm work and come back fully rejuvenated for next year.