Why let your garden just "fall" asleep when you can make it "spring" awake? Preparing the winter garden, use these 20 steps to create a healthy winter garden that will bring healthy garden results in spring.
Preparing the Winter Garden
"Fall is not the end of the gardening year;
it is the start of next year's growing season."
— Thalassa Cruso
THE BETTER PART OF THE APRIL DAY was still ahead of us and the digging forks were already heavy in our hands, when my gardening friend spoke: "Nature's inefficient! She gives us scads of gardening chores in spring—right when our bodies are the flabbiest. Then by the time we get all toned up and in shape, it's fall and there're almost no garden chores left."
I didn't have a rebuttal for this apparent injustice to home growers. I just grunted in agreement, wiped my brow and bent back over my fork. But garden writer Thalassa Cruso has a partial solution: Why not knock off some of next spring's chores this fall? That's right, do them now-while your biceps are brimming with stamina and your garden duties aren't crowding together like root-bound May seedlings.
So here's a check list of 20 ideas for fall plot improvement:
1. Test. Autumn's the best time to send soil samples off for analysis. The labs aren't swamped with work, so you get results back faster than in spring. The soil's generally drier, which makes sampling easier and more accurate. And there's more time for any of the recommended amendments you add to break down and work their way into the soil.
Your county extension agent may provide inexpensive (or free) testing. Some other sources: Necessary Trading Company (New Castle, VA), Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (Nevada City, CA), Woods End Laboratory (Mt. Vernon, ME) and A & L Labs (Tennessee or California for the location of the lab nearest you).
2. Clean up . Remove decaying crop litter to the compost heap and you eliminate choice overwintering sites for insects and diseases. It's a heck of a lot easier to do this chore section by section throughout the fall than to put it off and battle icy ground and frozen fingers later. Inspect the crop roots you pull up for hints of below ground problems like nematodes. Burn any foliage from diseased plants. And cover that compost pile with plastic or a thick layer of straw to shed snow and rain.
3. Cultivate. Tilling soil in fall can reduce pest troubles next spring. It interrupts the life cycles of insects by exposing underground grubs, eggs and pupae to hungry birds and cold temperatures. Tilling also helps break up the rough soil of a new garden site: Winter's freezes and thaws will pulverize those churned-up clods.
4. Sow cover crops. If you're more interested in improving soil fertility than in reducing insect pests, don't leave open, cultivated soil. Instead, sow that ground in hardy cover crops such as winter rye mixed with hairy vetch (or, in mild-winter areas, banner fava beans). Cover crops eliminate erosion, improve soil structure, provide spring compost material and keep nutrients from leaching down out of reach. A thick planting of a fall cover crop is a special blessing if you're starting a new garden where grass or weeds have reigned supreme: It can cut next year's weeding headaches in half.
5. Pile leaves. Corral those fallen flags of fall in a chicken wire bin. They'll come in handy as mulching material, future compost makings and leaf mold for the bottom of seedling trays next spring.
6. Fend off frost. When frost threatens, pick the fruits of tender fare like tomatoes, sweet peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and sweet potatoes. But have cloches, hot caps, blankets, baskets and other covers ready to protect hardier crops.
7. Grow hardy. Sow winter-hardy crops like kale, spinach, mustard, lettuce (types like oak leaf and Boston), parsley, chives, Swiss chard and Chinese cabbage. (This last crop is especially well adapted to low light and temperature conditions.) Protect them with simple cloches of clear plastic over PVC arches, wooden cold frames or recycled windows atop bales of hay.
8. Hasten maturity. A dose of manure tea or foliar fertilizer may help crops like lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts and Chinese and regular cabbages reach maturity before killing frost.
9. Tend to tools. In most gardens, spades and trowels have played hide-and-seek all over the plot by the time fall arrives. Round the wayward tools up, wipe their dirt off (scrub them if necessary with a wire brush), oil them with vegetable oil (to fend off rust), and store them away for winter. Drain and store all hoses, watering wands, nozzles and sprinklers before freezing weather can damage them. Disinfect all seed-starting equipment with one part liquid chlorine bleach to nine parts water. (Let it dry before storing.) And put away any trellising, stakes, plastic sheeting and spunbond material that you're not currently using.
10. Winterize engines. Drain or run out all the gasoline from lawn mowers, tillers and string trimmers. Otherwise, water can condense in the tanks over winter and make for hard starting next spring. Then disconnect the spark plugs and store the machines under cover to keep them dry.
11. Make a list. Just because you know now that next spring you'll need such items as a new hoe, mower blade, piece of wire fencing and red paint for the tool handles (it's hard to lose red-handled tools) doesn't mean that you'll remember all those things the next time you're at the hardware store or the flea market. Why not make a list of those garden needs and tape it to your car dashboard?
12. Tend perennials. Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), rhubarb, horseradish and asparagus can be planted in fall. In areas of mild winters, so can grapes, blackberries and raspberries (not strawberries, though, except in the far South). Leave the dead foliage of established asparagus to catch snow (and thus moisture) until spring. Then you can smash it down to provide extra mulch. Cancel this counsel, however, if you have asparagus beetle problems. In that case, cut down all spent asparagus tops and burn or compost them. It's also a good idea to add a layer of aged manure every fall or two to an asparagus bed. Prepare the sites for such spring bulbs as daffodils, crocuses, tulips, lilies of the valley, irises and peonies by digging in lots of compost and bonemeal. Then check the timetable in your area for when to divide and replant.
13. Mark roots. Searching through snow or frozen ground to find overwintering root crops is no fun. So mark the borders of those plantings now (mulch the areas when the crops' tops die back).
14. Grow garlic. Sure, you can plant garlic in the spring, but it will grow bigger and better if you set it out the prior fall. Poke individual cloves into the ground about an inch below the surface and spaced three inches apart. Then don't pass GO—don't even stop to sip lemonade—but immediately mulch your new bed. (That way you'll save yourself hours of weeding hassles next spring.) First, put down a layer of leaves (smaller or shredded ones work best), then add clean straw to hold that down. The garlic stalks will sprout right through the covering now, then grow like crazy next spring.
15. Start spring greens. Sow lettuce, spinach, corn salad, cress and parsley under a spunbond row cover two weeks before that first fall frost is due. You may get as little as 50% germination from those seeds come spring, but they'll produce the earliest—and best-tasting—greens around.
16. Take in tender herbs. In most climates, cold-sensitive herbs such as rosemary, lemon verbena, scented geraniums and tender lavenders and sages won't survive unless they're brought indoors for winter. There they can continue to provide you with fresh seasonings. Kate and Fairman Jayne of Sandy Mush Herb Nursery say these tenderfoot plants need tough treatment (even though it may seem like blatant plant abuse). First, wait until after the first hard freeze to dig the herbs. Then set them on the garage floor for several days. This shocks the plants into a very short (but necessary) dormancy period. Next, prune back the stems and pot each herb in a container that is two inches wider than the root ball. Bring them indoors, and water minimally until their stark branches show signs of perking up, and only moderately after that.
17. Overwinter hardy herbs. Oregano, chives, mint, parsley, lemon balm, hardy lavenders, culinary sages, thyme and savory are a few of the herbs that can handle what winter dishes out. But don't prune them right before winter—that encourages vulnerable new growth. Hold off on trimming until late winter or early spring. However, you may want to mulch them.
18. Take herb cuttings. To have the benefits of fresh herbs—either tender or hardy—in winter, you can start cuttings from them anytime from two months to two weeks before the first frost date. Clip of sections that are three to four inches long. Strip off the leaves on the lower third to half of each piece, and dip it in a commercial rooting hormone. Then put it in a light soil mix. Keep the soil moist but not flooded.
19. Save seed. Don't forget to collect seed from your favorite plants (non-hybrids only): that tastiest tomato, the last summer lettuce to bolt, the cheeriest flower. You can also take steps to save seed from biennials. Mark and mulch all root crops (except radishes), and leave a few to bloom and go to seed next spring.
20. Pat yourself on the back. Pick a sunny afternoon—one of those sharp, bright days that only fall brings—pull out a lawn chair, and set it down right smack dab in the middle of your garden. Lie back and relax. Think about all the beauty and success your garden has given you this year. Note those areas where you overplanted or underweeded. Look at the whole plot without any positive or negative judgments, and see what new things it tells you. Then close your eyes and take a restful nap.
You've earned it.