Putting Your Garden to Bed For the Winter

Once you’ve harvested your garden, the next step in the gardening process is to set yourself up for success for the following year. Here’s a guide of things to do at year-end after everything has been harvested.

First of all, it’s never too late to remove perennial weeds. These weeds are probably still growing even now and are building up carbohydrates in their roots which will be used to grow when they re-emerge next spring. Removing these plants in the fall, which is the easiest time of year when the soil is somewhat bare and is quite workable, will improve the odds that they won’t re-emerge. Try to remove the tops and as much of the root as you can in order to weaken the plant and reduce its chances of surviving the winter. Examples of perennial weeds that should be removed include field bindweed, ground ivy (aka Creeping Charlie), burdock, dandelions, purslane, Canada thistle, quackgrass, and nutsedge.

A theme that we often mention in our program is to never leave your soil uncovered at any time during the year. This is still quite true over the winter as any uncovered soil in your garden beds will tend to compact or leach away with the spring melt – plus it makes for easy germination of weed seeds in the spring.

The preferred method of dealing with this is to plant a cover crop which can be left in the ground over winter – it generally won’t survive the cold but its roots will hold your garden bed together and its decaying stems and leaves will cover the soil in the spring to reduce nutrient leaching and weed germination while providing organic matter. All that said, it needs to be done by September for the cover crop seeds to germinate. A late-season solution for November is to use non-diseased plant prunings and/or tarps to cover your garden beds over the winter. These covers will provide most of the same benefits of cover crops and are still an option in November.

In the case of using plant prunings, these can overwinter on top of the soil and then be incorporated into the soil 2 weeks before planting in the spring to add more organic matter. Dark coloured tarps have the further advantage of warming up the soil earlier in the spring, enabling you to start planting earlier. Of course, you can use both – cover your soil with plant matter and then place tarps on top of it.

One quick note, when covering the soil for weed suppression, try to plant early-blooming flowers near your garden to ensure that pollinators have something to consume in the absence of your weeds.

An exception to the rule of always covering your garden soil is where you have pest infestations. Always assume that the pests will overwinter beneath the plants where they resided. Thus, wherever an infestation occurs, leave the soil in that area uncovered to expose the pests to the winter weather. In addition, giving the area a hard raking after the first frost will further expose more pests or eggs to the elements.

A final late-season exercise is to take the time now to think back on your most and least successful vegetables during the past year. These are your best indication of what will become the best and worst vegetables for next year. Aim to document your gardening results while you can still remember them – at a minimum, do this review in advance of the planning and seed-ordering processes in the new year, so set yourself up for success for your next growing season.

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