As tempting as it is to walk away from your garden after you've harvested your last vegetable of the season, you need to prep the garden for next year. That means:
1. Remove any remaining plants
After the first freeze of winter, remove any remaining plants from the garden. This process is as easy as pulling plants up by the stems. Unless your plants are diseased, it’s okay for some of the roots to break off and remain in the soil. This is a natural soil booster as microbes break down the plant matter and slowly release nutrients back into the soil. If you compost, plant residue makes a great addition to your compost bin.
2. Amend the Soil
After you have removed old plants you can prep the soil for next year or do a winter planting. Just like your lawn often benefits from a winter lawn fertilizer treatment, your garden will too!
If you are planting winter leafy crops (i.e. kale, chard, collards and kale), they benefit most from a dose of nitrogen. Nitrogen is effective in stimulating leaf growth. However, if you’re focusing on winter root crops (i.e. turnips, beets, carrots, parsnips and rutabagas), you need phosphorus and potassium as they supplement root establishment.
If your garden is going unused until next spring, it’s still beneficial to amend the soil. A soil test will help determine if any amendments are needed to balance out the pH (Lime or Sulfur). These take time to acclimate with the soil, therefore adding them in the winter ensures they’ve done their job by spring.
Now is also a great time to add any compost to your garden. Adding several inches of compost and working it into the soil enriches the soil. It also gives it a headstart in the spring. Compost helps your soil retain moisture, it stimulates beneficial bacteria and microbes, and reduces the need for fertilizer.
If you are not planting anything until spring, avoid applying manure or fertilizer. It’s tempting to fertilize now to save time later, but you’re only wasting time and money. Organic and chemical fertilizers release nutrients over time. Where phosphorus and potassium are a slower release, nitrogen breaks down rather quickly. Applying a fertilizer in the soil months before planting will not give the full benefit to your developing plants.
The final step in winterizing your garden is mulching. The type of mulch isn’t a big deal. The key is simply adding a protective layer on top of your soil.
Wood chips are one of the most common types of mulch, it can be expensive. Consider using leaves or pine needles from your lawn. Trees are conveniently casting their leaves or needles around the same time you need mulch for your garden. Simply use your lawn mower to break up the leaves and then apply a 2-4” inch layer over the soil.
Leave this mulch in place until you’re ready to plant in the spring. Do not remove this protective layer until after the final frost of the season.
Taking these few steps to winterize your garden will greatly benefit in the Spring. Not only will you have more time in the Spring to do other things, your soil will be better prepared for planting. Winterizing your garden is simple to do and protects your investment for future growing seasons.