Embracing the Mess of a Winter Garden

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by AdobeStock/gojalia

My winter garden is a mess. Dead plants hang off my trellises, and leaf debris litters my walkways.

Autumn and the killing frost happen during hectic times. I’m often traveling for work, preserving my harvests, or facilitating livestock breeding during ruts. We’ll rush out, pack tomatoes in cardboard boxes, and save what we can. The frost takes it all, leaving limp plants that soon dry out. But that’s fine. It’s all part of the scientific process, and it saves me a whole lot of time.

Organic gardening involves science, but you don’t need to be a scientist to grow a successful garden. A couple of simple principles go a long way:

  1. Elements can’t be created or destroyed. They must be made available for plants.
  2. Microbes can’t work without food (organic material), water, and the right temperatures.

Those two rules explain why many organic gardeners:

  • Compost kitchen scraps. Minerals in vegetable peels and cores become minerals in next year’s produce.
  • Don’t pull frost-killed plants unless they’re invasive; we let the roots break down in the soil so microbes can use them as organic material.
  • Don’t till our gardens, because it exposes microbes to killing factors, such as sunlight and heat.
  • Mulch or cover crop to keep soil temperatures and moisture levels optimal for beneficial microbes.

Like many gardeners, I used to believe I had to till in spring. It took a few years for me to understand how no-till systems work, but once I did, I never looked back. When those frost-killed crops dry out, I crush them to ground level and then cover them with compost and manure. I cut particularly woody plants at soil level and chop the tops into my compost piles. Then, I let winter do what winter does best: break down cellular structures with frost and moisture. Spring microbes take over when the weather warms, since their food is already available. By planting time, the material has mostly broken down.

To sow seeds, I chop the top layer with a shovel until fine enough for the desired seed size. I dig a hole just big enough for the root ball for transplants, and then I push everything back around the plant. And I mulch as soon as possible. This is crucial for my desert gardening in Nevada. Mulch everything.

Of course, the science of organic gardening differs for specific gardens and specific areas. I don’t burn plants or apply wood ash, because my groundwater has an alkaline pH of 8.0, but this practice can benefit root crops growing in acidic soils. And I’ve learned that leftover cheesemaking whey is an amazing microbial acidifier for alkaline soils.

Which area-specific techniques do you use in your gardens? What tips can you offer other readers who want to leave behind chemical fertilizers or destructive tilling practices? We’d love to hear from you.

And don’t miss Andy Wilcox’s article, “Repairing the Nitrogen Cycle: How to Add Nitrogen to your Soil“, for a little easy-to-understand science about why leaving your winter garden “a mess” might be just what it needs. (Plus, it’s a great time-saver for busy autumn schedules.)

May all your garden’s elements be bioavailable,

Marissa Ames

Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Mother Earth News.

  • Updated on Mar 20, 2023
  • Originally Published on Mar 1, 2023
Tagged with: Marissa Ames, microbes, News from Mother, no-till, soil health
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