How To Get A No-Dig Garden Ready For Winter

As winter approaches, readying a no-dig garden for the end of its growing season presents one of the biggest benefits of no-till—it's easy! Here's what you should know.

by Michelle Bruhn
PHOTO: Michelle Bruhn

I was first drawn to no-dig gardening for one simple reason: It’s easy! And while the practices may seem like lazy gardening, there’s meaningful science behind what we don’t do in a no-till garden. And when I saw with my own eyes the results touted by so many books and research papers, I became hooked.  

I love talking and sharing about no-dig gardening because it helps us shift our thoughts from how we garden to how nature grows best. And so far, taking cues from nature has always proved the right decision. 

What to Know About No-Dig

In many ways no-dig simply means building the soil up instead of digging down. We want to leave the soil microbes and all their infinitely webbed relationships intact. So the less digging we do, the better.  

At the end of the growing season, no-dig affects how we harvest and how we clean up the garden for its dormant season of rest.  

Harvesting, Not Pulling 

Ripping out plants with all their roots can be satisfying. But this clearing method can too easily devastate entire communities of fungi and bacteria that have been working with all the plant roots that get yanked out.

Those living microorganisms must find another way to sustain themselves, so they go elsewhere. So much for all the nutrient mining and resource sharing that slowly evolved over the growing season!

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The same wholesale displacement of soil life communities happens with tilling and double digging. Did you know you can find an estimated 1 billion microbes in a teaspoon of soil? Looking at things this way also helps us understand the benefits of growing more perennials.

So, what do soil life-loving gardeners do? We snip stems at soil level and leave the roots intact. These roots will slowly feed the microbes. It really is that easy. Compost the top parts of the plants and leave the roots. I also have good luck with “leaving the leaves” of most trees (except walnut and large amounts of oak). 

3 Tips to Get You Started 

First, definitely plan to leave the bean and pea plant roots. These likely have nodules of fixed nitrogen (thanks to bacteria) that will help feed your plants next year, so long as you leave them in place. It would be like extracting nitrogen from your soil if you removed these. 

Next, plan to leave marigold roots in place. As these plants decompose, they release a chemical in the roots that helps to suppress pest nematodes and cabbage worms. 

Finally, you can ahead and rip out any diseased plant roots, which usually includes tomatoes and cucurbits (any of the cucumber, melon, squash family). Powdery mildew and blights overwinter in the soil, and we don’t want to preserve disease.

Cover the Soil 

One of the basic concepts of building healthy soil is keeping it covered. After your final harvest of the season, your soil will be happiest with a blanket. You could add a couple inches of fresh compost or organic mulch. Come spring, the black compost will warm faster than a light straw-colored mulch (but leaf mold is great for a darker mulch).  

Another favorite option is sowing cover crop seeds. Cover crops are grown to feed the soil life while nothing else is growing. These kinds of crops typically only require five or so weeks of growth to make a positive impact on the soil. They also add organic mass with more roots and leaves produced that will remain in place after they die back or are chopped at soil level.

Cover crops are often formulated to add nitrogen and leave behind a beautiful organic layer of mulch to plant into the following spring. I like a mix of oats, peas and radishes for my vegetable gardens. 

Come spring, your seedlings and future harvests will thank you! 

Michelle Bruhn,
Forks in the Dirt

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