The garden season does not end with the first frost or the last tomato. There is much to be done to shut the beds down for winter. Think of it as starting the garden for spring, because these practices will improve the soil and reduce insect populations and diseases for next year.
I am chipping away at this chore well into October. With each night of freezing temperatures, something else dies and needs to be pulled. It hasn’t been very cold here, so many crops are still producing!
Consider building low tunnels for cool-weather crops to harvest over winter. Gardeners in milder climates, such as the southeastern US can harvest from a low tunnel all winter! A thick layer of mulch works, too, but I have never had luck with it. The ground freezes and my crops along with it. A few good crops for winter harvest include carrots, leeks, radishes, kale, chard, spinach, parsnips and horseradish.
Pull out spent plants. If they are diseased, put them in the trash or burn them. Do NOT compost them, or you will add disease to future gardens. If you’re not sure, get rid of them.
Plant garlic. I use garlic in salad dressings, soups, stews, sauces, flavored vinegars and pickled vegetables. I even eat it sliced on crackers with almond butter! A fall planted crop will yield edible garlic scapes (flower stalks) in June and bulbs in July in our Zone 5. Properly cured, it will last all winter, and you can plant a fresh crop from what you harvest. It’s very sustainable! But now is the time to plant.
Till the soil. This will expose and kill bugs planning to overwinter in the soil.
Get a soil test and add amendments if necessary. Some nutrients take time to break down, so if you add them in fall, they are available to plants in the spring. Bone meal is a good example.
Add compost and till the soil again. Plant cover crops (also called green manure) before frost. Winter rye is the most common, but there are others. Check with your county extension for the best ones for your area. Cover crops will keep down weeds in spring and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil when it is tilled in come spring. They help reduce erosion and protect the soil from the effects of precipitation. They act as a layer of mulch in that way.
Pull weeds and rake up all the plant debris before the ground freezes. These are hiding grounds for bugs and diseases.
Start a new compost pile. Make a ring of chicken wire or create a box shape from old pallets. I always have three piles going. I rotate them, emptying the oldest one onto the beds in spring. During the summer, I add plant material and manure, then water it regularly and turn it every few weeks. These speeds the decomposition. My three piles are in three different states – fresh, ready for use, and in-between (needing another year to be ready). If you spread compost in fall, start a new pile.
Clean off and put away your tools, trellises, stakes, cages and row covers. Wash the mud off your shovels, rakes and pitchforks, oil the work surfaces, and store them in a shed or garage. Get out your snow shovel, and tune up your snow blower while you’re at it!
Enjoy the winter! Spend time with a hot drink on a snowy day planning your harvest for next year.