Preparing the Winter Garden

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PHOTO: PAT STONE
Clean up and remove (to the compost pile, if possible) crop residue that could harbor insect pests.

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.