You have been growing green all summer. Now, the days grow shorter, and the tomatoes are long gone. Your winter crops are almost ready to harvest and there’s a distinct nip in the air. Yes, it’s the end of the growing season. While the weather is still cooperating, a sustainable gardener takes the opportunity now to prepare the garden for winter. Here are some important tasks that will really make a difference next growing season.
House Cleaning – Extension agents are fond of calling this sanitation. Basically it means taking out all the dead garden debris and plants that are no longer producing. Clean, healthy debris can be added to compost piles, or shredded and plowed under. Any diseased or insect ridden plant material needs to be removed and sent to a landfill. Home composting is not enough to kill pathogens or insect eggs. These will come back to haunt you if added to your compost.
Rake Leaves – Leaf raking serves two purposes. One, it makes great compost and mulch. Shred leaves with a lawnmower or shredder before adding to the compost pile, or spreading around for mulch. The shredded leaves will break down over the winter and add good nutrients to your garden. This is especially important if you are using leaves for mulch. Whole, wet leaves clump together and do not break down adequately for spring planting because of the cold.
Secondly, removing leaves and fallen branches eliminates hiding places for insect pests that shelter under them in the winter. Many insects and eggs will be eliminated by exposure to cold winter temperatures.
Tend or Start Your Compost – With all that good green and brown matter available from your garden, now is a good time to compost. If you haven’t ever done it before one simple rule is to add a layer of brown material (dry leaves, soil, wood chips, shredded newspaper) for every layer of green (plants, vegetable and fruit scraps, yard waste). If you have been composting, now is a good time to turn your pile and make sure you have good aeration. Covering an open compost pile will help keep in the heat for decomposition to continue during the cold weather.
Amend Soil – Before winter sets in add organic matter to your soil. Organic material adds nutrients and microorganisms over the winter, ensuring more fertile soil for next spring. Compost, clean garden debris, manure, shredded leaves, wood chips and sawdust will have a chance to break down and become part of the soil. Do not add fertilizers now. They will wash away and pollute streams, doing little to help your garden.
Cover the Earth – After you have done all that amending, your soil needs to be protected from the elements. Erosion is a serious threat and no one wants to lose their hard earned soil. There are two good options -- mulching or planting a cover crop. If you choose to mulch, spread 2”-3” over the garden. Oat straw, shredded leaves, ground corn cobs, sawdust and wood chips are good choices.
Cover crops are also called green mulch. These crops cover your soil with a blanket of winter green. You will not only be fixing nitrogen in your soil, you will also have something more attractive than a brown patch to look at during the winter. One important go green benefit is that any nutrients or fertilizer still in the soil will be stored in the cover crop. You will prevent pollution by preventing nutrient runoff to the streams. When spring comes, you just till it into the soil for added fertility. Check with your local extension office to find the best cover crops for your area.
For sustainable gardens, take time now to prepare for winter. Going green before the cold sets in will make your next growing season much more productive. You will be growing green again in no time.