Tips for Winterizing Your Garden
As with all things, the season for work in our gardens is coming to a close, and the season of rest is about to begin. But before you hang up your garden gloves for the winter, here are a few tips to help you prepare your garden for its rest, and to optimize what winter does for our gardens.
Protect the Soil
One of the most important things you can concentrate your winter gardening chores on is the soil, taking steps to make sure it is in the best condition to recover and heal over winter.
Clean up. To remove or not to remove is the question here. Does leaving crop residue benefit the soil as it breaks down or not? For the most part the answer is no. A lot of what plant material that may be left over from the growing season can more likely invite pests and disease and bacteria, so the best recommendation is to remove everything, roots and all. The exception would be, of course, perennial bulbs, and nitrogen-fixing legumes and greens. Those can stay, just make sure to till well into the dirt. Whatever you do take out, compost it (unless it’s moldy or diseased).
Compost. Experts disagree on when to compost. I like to compost now and again in spring. It can’t hurt. You can either work it in to the soil now, or leave a 3” or 4” layer on top and winter moisture will carry nutrients into the soil for you.
Cover. Depending on how large your garden is, consider the benefits of planting a cover crop after you’ve cleaned it up. Bare soil is vulnerable to nutrient leeching and erosion. Cover crops can also aid in adding or taking out various nutrients. Their primary purpose is protection. Planting now means finding crops that grow quickly in cool weather. Cornell University has a cover crop decision tool for vegetable growers. Come spring, you’ll want to till in your crop before it seeds so you don’t end up with weeds.
Protect the Plants
Though winter rest can be beneficial to plants, it can also be destructive so taking steps to protect them from extremes is another important step in the winterizing process for your garden.
Divide. Now is a great time to divide and replant any perennials that have multiplied this year.
Deposit. Plant spring-blooming bulbs like tulips, daffodils and crocus in the ground now. Follow the instructions for planting. If you have problems with pests digging them up, you can put a barrier between the bulbs and the culprits, like putting a layer of chicken wire on top of the bulb. Squirrels can’t dig through it, but the flower can grow through it.
Dig up. Sensitive bulbs like dahlias or cannas that won’t winter over well can be dug up now and preserved through the winter by essentially recreating a better environment for them inside: air them for a week then place in a peat moss filled paper bag and store in a cool, dark place.
Deliver. The fall feeding of fertilizer may be the most important one you deliver to your lawn all year. This time of year offers ideal growing conditions: cool nights, lots of rain and morning dew. Your grass is hungry for nutrient recover after summer growth. Fertilizing now strengthens roots, increases nitrogen storage and will pay off in the spring with a greener lawn.
Drench. While winter offers a lot of good rest, it can also be destructive. Frozen ground locks water out and makes it unavailable and can kill plants. Soak them well with water before the soil freezes. A couple inches of good quality mulch can also help to protect plants from winter’s hazards, especially alternating freezes and thaws which can really harm bulbs. Too much and/or bad quality mulch can invite disease and pests.
Drape. Some landscape plants or pots need to be covered to protect against harsh winter conditions. You can wrap plants loosely with burlap. Another option is to form “tents” over them, or enclose it with wire fencing to form a “cage” and insulate it with leaves or straw. There are also manufactured sprays to apply to evergreens to enhance hardiness.
Protect the Tools
Rather than leaving tools for the next few months and cleaning them later, add these last chores to your winter checklist and help preserve your tools for use next spring.
Scrub. Clean your tools with soap and water, scrubbing them with a stiff brush if necessary, and using sandpaper to remove rust. Make sure to dry them completely.
Sharpen. To sharpen your tools, file from outer edge to the center, using down strokes. Or, take them to a professional sharpener.
Store. Wiping metal parts with an oiled cloth will help preserve them and prevent rust. Wooden handles can also be cared for with linseed oil. Tighten any loose parts, then store your tools in a dry area.
Winter gardening chores are a great way to transition to the next season. It feels good to protect your garden and prepare it for a good wintering over. Once you finish, hang up your garden gloves, put your feet up under a warm blanket and welcome in the coming winter.