No matter how pleasant the autumn might be, folks in the northern states know that winter lurks right around the corner. A wise farmer prepares for the cold months long before the snow and frigid temperatures make everything difficult.
Dan and Nicole Fisher of Dannik Gardens in Columbia Falls, Mont., have to stay on top of their year-round gardening schedule to have everything in order by winter. Located adjacent to the farm where Dan was raised, the family, including their five children, have a lot on their plate from early in the spring to well past the first snowfall. Dannik Gardens offers naturally raised vegetables for their CSA subscriptions and farmers market sales, along with armfuls of flowers and an impressive menagerie of goats, pigs, horses and bees. Preparing for the winter has to start early in order to have everything done in time.
As soon as the Fishers feel that nip of fall in the air, they create a plan on what needs to be done.
“We kind of sit down and try to make lists,” Nicole says. From there, it’s a matter of checking tasks off the list as the schedule allows. Take some cues from these energetic, hardworking farmers as you begin to batten the hatches.
1. Prepare The Soil
With animals, garden materials and additional organic material, the Fishers make compost throughout the growing season so they’re able to add organic matter back into the soil.
“A lot of the compost is mixed into the soil in the fall,” Dan says. “We compost everything we can get our hands on. It’s important to feed the soil.”
The compost continues to break down through the fallow season and is ready for planting in the spring.
2. Clean And Prep Flower Gardens
Once the fall frost ends the blooms for the season, the Fishers mow down the perennial beds and clean out the spent flowers. They also dig up and store the dahlias and gladioli that won’t make it through the northern winter, keeping them in their cold storage to maintain the state of dormancy without freezing them. They also plant spring bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, before the ground freezes.
Fall is also the time to think about next year. Dan says that during a warmer than normal autumn, he has time to do tasks he might normally do in the spring, such as expand the size of the flower beds.
3. Store Tools And Other Items
Your tools and equipment can take a huge hit if they’re not properly stored during the cold season, especially if left unprotected from precipitation. The Fishers cleared out a cold-frame greenhouse, giving them space to store the lawnmower, garden hoses and other equipment that they don’t want buried in the snow—any outbuilding could serve the same purpose on your farm.
Nicole emphasizes the need to completely drain the water out of the garden hoses by holding them up as you gather and coil them. In some parts of Montana, people need to pull out the hoses in February or March to give trees, shrubs and perennials a mid-winter drink due to the dry climate. If your hoses are frozen, it’s a nearly impossible task to thaw them at this time of the year.
4. Prune Fruit Trees
While many people wait until late winter or early spring to prune their fruit trees, Dan takes advantage of a few extra moments in the fall to handle this task.
“A lot of things are done when I have time for them,” he says. “It’s using your time when you have good weather.”
Once trees go into dormancy—i.e., drop their leaves—is a safe time to prune. He’ll cut off the water shoots and suckers and remove some of the smaller branches. This project, especially snipping the smaller shoots, can take a lot of time, and doing it in the fall when the weather is pleasant can be more productive than trying to tackle it on a cold spring day.
5. Plant For Spring
Autumn is the perfect time for planting trees, shrubs, and perennials. “Everything is on sale,” Dan says, making this a good opportunity to buy specimens at a lower cost.
By planting in the fall, the time needed to care for the tree or shrub, such as with watering, is greatly reduced since the plants are heading into dormancy.
Fall is also a good time to plant your garlic.
6. Address Animal Needs
Winter can be tough on your livestock, so make sure they’re living environments are up to par to reduce the stress of the season. Fix any fences, build or fix any feeders and waterers, and check that living quarters are tight to ensure the animals stay warm and dry.
7. Stock Up On Cold-Weather Clothing
Long before the first snowfall, Nicole makes sure her family is ready for the cold weather. As she goes through the storage, she checks that the children all have a winter coat that fits. She also makes sure their boots, hats, gloves and any other winter gear is ready so when they need them to go out to the barn or do other farm chores, they don’t need to hold a massive search expedition.
She also reorganizes the children’s clothes so appropriate clothing is at hand, which can be a challenge because, during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, it’s common to experience three seasons in one day. They have to be prepared to layer for the cold, but be ready to peel off clothes down to a T-shirt for warm afternoons.
This preparation includes going through the family’s clothes and taking bags of items to a charitable organization so the clothes can benefit someone else.
8. Deep Clean
“In the winter you spend a lot more time indoors, so I do a deep cleaning of the house,” Nicole says. “My focus is making it light so we don’t get caught up in the winter gloominess.”
Because they entertain company more in the winter, she also considers the best use of the space and rearranges it accordingly so they have comfortable areas to visit with guests.
9. Put Up Food
Starting in the mid-summer, Nicole is in the kitchen canning to have food on hand throughout the winter; plus, she stocks up on additional stores to reduce the need to go into town during inclement weather. Where Dannik Gardens is located, the road can be treacherous in the winter, making a trip into town for groceries unappealing and potentially dangerous.
“It’s just common sense to have staple items on hand,” she says, and also notes that grocery shopping well in advance of the holiday season is a good time to find deals on butter, flour and other baking items. If you buy it months before people are stocking up for Thanksgiving, the prices are far cheaper. She takes advantage of this time to buy a few more bags of flour, sugar, and items they can heat up on the woodstove.
Yet she’s still focused on preserving the summer’s bounty.
“The gardens are done, but we’re still canning,” Dan explains.
They store apples, beets and other produce in a walk-in cooler until there is more time to process them in the kitchen. “It helps stretch out the canning so it’s not killing Nicole,” Dan says.
They also clean out the big deep freezer to have room for the pork from their hogs coming back from the butcher. Nicole moves what meat is leftover from last year to the front so they’re sure to use it first.
“Although I know we’ll be eating bacon the first day,” she laughs.
With the home well-stocked and organized, the gardens tucked in for the winter, new trees and shrubs planted for the year, and the animals ready to weather the cold, the Fisher clan is as prepared as they can be for whatever the Montana winter is going to throw at them. They can go into the season with the comfort knowing that their hard work pays dividends when the snow rises, and they can enjoy the company of friends and family during this quiet season. You, too, can start on this season of preparation before it’s time to hunker down.
About the Author: Freelance writer Amy Grisak lives in Great Falls, Mont., where she tends to chickens, beehives and a garden with her two young sons and her husband, Grant.