Putting Your Garden To Sleep For The Winter

As summer draws to a close, it's time to think about the cold season and getting the garden ready for winter. Here are a few ways to get your growing space winter-ready.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: ysbrandcosijn/Adobe Stock

You can find many reasons to put your garden to sleep for the winter. Remember that a natural ecosystem will necessarily have preparation in order to go into the long cold winters that we experience throughout most of North America.

There are many important ways that we can maximize ecosystem services when putting our garden to rest. These can be broken down into various strategies and can also paired with other typical market garden and landscape management techniques.

Let’s explore some of the top choices for preparing your garden for winter.

Cover Cropping

Cover cropping is your ally going into the winter because it protects the soil surface not only in the fall when you may have heavy rains, but also throughout the winter. Cover crops can keep soil life buffered from the extreme temperatures of the cold winter months.

It also protects the soil in the spring, when there is not only a lot of runoff from snow melt but also heavy rains, which will erode unprotected soil, causing you to lose not only the grains of your soil but also the nutrients.

Cover cropping has additional benefits, too, scavenging nutrients in the fall.  This means these crops take up various soluble nutrients, such as nitrogen available in the soil after your crop is finished, and holds them in an insoluble form in the form of organic matter that is living and growing.

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Cover crops can also provide weed suppression benefits by preventing the germination of weeds by covering them over with a canopy—especially perennial weeds that may germinate in the fall and annual weeds that may germinate in the spring. This last benefit is best achieved by using an overwintered cover crop such as winter rye, which has the added effect of actually suppressing weed seed germination by an allele pathic chemical reaction in the soil.

The addition of cover crops in the spring through flail mowing and incorporation will serve as a green manure, only further adding to their overall ecosystem services for your garden. Cover cropping is one of the top choices for putting your garden to rest in the winter.

Cover cropping is easy to do, too. You can simply remove your crop debris and broadcast or re-prepare by lightly tilling the beds and seeding. Or you can undersow with cover crops like clover and allow them to germinate in the canopy of the crop, such as squash, just prior to harvest.

However you slice it, cover crops are a multi-faceted way of keeping your garden in good shape in the fall winter and spring.

Crop Cover Cropping

Another type of cover cropping that is often overlooked is crop cover cropping. This is the process of leaving crop debris in your garden fields or beds in order to benefit from their protective services over the fall and winter. In the spring this would mean allowing late crops of lettuce to bolt and go in flower, thus providing a lot of debris going into the colder months. This will protect the soil life from cold winter extremes.

The benefit of crop cover cropping include maximizing the yields of your crop by allowing the seed to yield both a harvestable product (ex: the leaf lettuce that was bagged and sold at market or eaten in your homestead) as well as the cover crop that’s protecting the soil surface over the winter.

On top of that, crop cover cropping can minimize soil disturbance going into the colder months. This will protect all that soil life from any sort of tillage activity, as you simply leave all that debris. However, crop cover crops can impact your crop rotation, as you need to be aware of any pests living within the crop, which could perpetuate over the winter months in undisturbed crop debris.

So consider whether or not any pests are at issue and whether or not you will need to have disturbances as part of your integrated pest management routine.

If you have a crop that doesn’t suffer from any major pest problems, and it’s a crop where the harvested part of the crop is not the whole plant, then it is likely a crop that has potential to be a crop cover crop—for instance, chard or arugula.

On the other hand, crops like head lettuce and cabbage have most of the debris removed through the final harvest. Often a combination of crop cover cropping and adding additional over seeding of cover crop seed is a good way to go.

Physical Barrier

The third method is to actually use a physical barrier over top of the soil to help protect it. This can take the form of mulch or tarps or weed barrier mulch, like straw or leaves. You could even use a thick, fresh compost applied to the soil surface to act as a protective barrier over the winter. This insulates the soil organisms against the harsh extremes of the cold and provides a buffer against erosion.

A mulch like straw or leaves will be much more resistant to erosion than using a compost type mulch, however, so this is preferable in areas with heavy rains and heavy snow melt.

These physical barriers can serve some of the same benefits of providing food sources and nutrition into the soil. Compost, leafy debris and stray mulch all release macro and micro nutrients when they start to decompose. However, it’s important to note that, unlike a cover crop, these materials provide much less nitrogen upon decomposition, so you’ll need to balance things with nitrogen amendments (such as fish fertilizer and other soluble, readily available nitrogen sources) in the spring to balance the heavy carbon of straw or leaf mulch debris.

On the other hand, a rich composted material will have more nitrogen in it. But, once again, such material is vulnerable to erosion unless it’s used alongside some kind of mulch.

The other type of mulching that can be used is either a plastic tarp or a weed barrier. This has the benefit of being very quick to apply. So if you’re growing a crop late into the year, it’s easy to pull a tarp or weed barrier over the garden before going into winter. A tarp also provides the benefit of protecting the soil over winter against erosion and extreme cold.

A tarp, however, doesn’t have any nutrient addition benefits at all.

Combining a synthetic mulch with a cover crop or a crop cover crop is another way to go, which sort of gets the best of both worlds. It will allow you to gain green manure benefits, really good insulation, and good erosion control. Your garden will also benefit from the synthetic mulch’s high heat, which destroys small germinating weed seeds in the early months of spring for a very clean bed.

Another benefit? All that heat speeds up the melt, allowing you to access your garden earlier. And we all know the early bird gets the worm when it comes to getting seeds in the ground!  you can get some crops (peas, arugulas, lettuces and radishes) planted a week or two before the usual planting dates to enjoy early season crops.

In conclusion, there are many ways to put your garden to sleep for the winter. But the goals always remain the same:

  • protecting the soil against erosion
  • feeding soil life with organic matter
  • protecting soil life by buffering against extreme temperatures
  • scavenging nutrients
  • adding nutrients to the soil (if possible)
  • going into spring earlier and weed-free for a productive growing year

Often, combining techniques and understanding where they fit into your crop rotation will be the best solution. So it’s always best to have some different tricks up your sleeves to make you an awesome garden magician when it’s time to perform.

Grow on,

Zach Loeks

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