While gardening is not for everyone, many people do enjoy maintaining a home garden or tending to a small space in the local community garden. Even though gardening is most popular during the summer months, if you choose to, you can have a garden year round with a variety of seasonal vegetables and herbs.
There are two different ways to look at winter gardens:
- gardening to have a winter vegetable crop during the winter months,
- maintaing a garden through the winter for a spring vegetable crop. Since we are already into fall, we will be looking more at the latter.
Don’t worry if you didn’t plan out a winter garden ahead of time. There are many areas in the United States where you can still get those winter or spring vegetables planted during the fall season. If it’s already too chilly or there’s snow where you live, consider starting and keeping seedlings inside or in a greenhouse.
Here are four winter gardening advantages and simple tips for gardening newbies:
1. Clean up diseased plants. Leave the rest in place.
While many spent plants can be left in place to rot and add nutrients to the soil, some may harbor disease, pests and funguses. If you noticed any signs of disease during the growing season but didn’t have the time to act, now is the time to remove them. The rest of your spent crops will provide protection for the soil, reducing erosion if left in place through the winter. They can also provide homes for overwintering pollinators.
2. Remove invasive weeds that may have taken hold over the growing season.
Remember the bindweed that colonized your raspberry patch? Or the Himalayan blackberry encroaching from your garden’s borders? Now is the time to deal with those renegades. Dig them up and place them in the trash or smother them underneath tarps or garden cloth.
Most invasive weeds remain viable in a compost heap or weed pile, so resist the urge to simply shift them to another part of your garden. Removing invasive plants completely is the only way to prevent those plants from sprouting all over again and disrupting next year’s crop.
3. Amend your soil for spring.
Despite the fact that most people reserve this activity for spring, fall is a great time to add soil amendments like manure and compost, or organic fertilizers such as bone meal, kelp and rock phosphate. In most climates, adding nutrients at this time of year means they have time to start breaking down, enriching your soil, and becoming biologically active.
Amending soil now also means you’ll have already done some of the work when the busy season hits.
Once you’ve sprinkled on your amendments, you can mulch your soil or sow a cover crop to prevent winter rains from washing the amendments below the active root zone; this applies especially to raised beds since they drain more readily than in-ground beds. Remove the mulch in early spring in advance of new planting.
4. Plant cover crops.
In many climates, late summer or early fall is a good time to sow cover crops like rye, vetch or clover. These crops help prevent soil erosion, break up compacted areas and increase levels of organic matter in garden beds. Cover crops also add nutrients and help your soil draw carbon into the soil from the atmosphere.
Planting legumes in your garden such as clover or field peas can increase the levels of available nitrogen for garden vegetables. While a general guideline is to plant cover crops approximately one month before your first killing frost, some cover crops are hardier than others. Consult your local extension agent or seed provider to identify the best fall cover crop for your region.