6 Tips to Prepare your Vegetable Garden for Winter

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I have mixed emotions about fall coming though I must say it is my favorite season as far as decorating and the colors. We have a long growing season here and it has been in full force since mid-May with canning, freezing, and preserving food.  This is another mixed emotion as well because it’s sad to see the plants dying but also its exciting to stand in the canning room and admire all the jars of food I have put away for winter.

Canned Goods from the Vegetable Garden

The end result of the long hot days in the kitchen are coming to an end but the different colors of food in the jars are as pretty, to me, as the fall leaves on the trees.

Whew, what a mess, you feel like you’ve worked non-stop all season long and when you do get time to go out and admire what’s left of the vegetable garden, it’s a total mess.  Dead plants and leaves all over the ground, rotting vegetables that have been missed and overgrown weeds that you didn’t have time to remove during the canning season.  It can all feel a bit overwhelming at first, but with some effort it can be gotten under control rather quickly and easily.  You can start with one section at a time and work your way to the others.  I focus on one bed at a time, finish it and then move on to the next one. This seems to make the task seem smaller, more enjoyable and easier to get back under control.

I know that once I get outside and start cleaning and prepping for winter, I will be more excited.  So to help you get excited as well, here are 6 ways to help you prepare your garden soil for winter.

Remove Dead Plants

Dead Leaves and Plants after Growing Season

Dead plants need to be removed completely from the vegetable garden.  They can all be put into the compost bin if they have no disease or mildews on them.  You never want to put a diseased plant into the compost, the bacteria will continue to grow and the disease will spread into the other materials as it breaks down.  If a plant is diseased or mildewed, put it into the trash or destroy it.

Since I have only raised beds, I DON’T pull my plants up out of the soil when cleaning.  Depending on the size of the stem or stalk, I use either Pruners, Garden Scissors, or Loppers  and cut it off right below ground level and leave the roots in the soil.  If you pull up root balls, it not only removes additional soil from the bed, but it also leaves a gaping hole under the soil that gives garden pests a home to overwinter in.  Not to mention that it also disrupts the healthy microbes and worms that are hard at work in the soil.

Add Compost

After removing all weeds, dead plants and leaves, put a 1-2 inch layer of finished compost on the soil.  Not to get it too thick because garden pests die in the winter when the ground freezes, so adding too much will only insulate the soil and keep them warm.

Add New Garden Soil if Needed

Raised Beds needing Organic Matter after Growing Season

In my raised beds, I lose 4-6 inches or more each year of soil and organic materials that I have put into the beds and it has to be added back in – this tells me that my vegetable plants are using it – which is a good thing.  You don’t want your beds getting too shallow and not have enough soil for next season’s vegetable roots to have room to dig deep and grow.  I choose to buy my garden soil. I haul it by the truck load and getting this much at a garden center in small bags would be terribly expensive.  I get mine from a local supplier that specializes in large quantities.  It has been sifted and therefore, I am not dealing with large clumps (done this in the beginning) that have to be broken up and it also contains sand, aged compost, lime and a soil conditioner (ground-up pine).  It’s all mixed well and I simply need to shovel it from my truck straight into the beds.

Get a Soil Test

Now is the perfect time to get a soil test done.  The basic soil test will cost you on average of $7-$30 but it is money well spent on getting you specific soil counts and knowing how to improve your garden soil. The guessing game can cost a lot more from buying unnecessary costly fertilizers or even worse yet, your vegetable garden not producing vegetables.  To get a soil sample kit, you may check with your local extension office and they will be able to help you through the process.  A soil test will tell you specific amounts of nutrients that are in your soil such as…

Soil pH level

Macronutrient Levels: Potassium (K), Phosphorus (P), Calcium (CA), Magnesium (Mg), Zinc (Zn)

Micronutrient Levels: Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Boron (B), Sodium (Na)

Once you have your results, you will know how what fertilizer (organic or synthetic) needs to be added, whether or not your soil needs lime or sulfur to get the pH levels good.  The soil test is available at your local extension office and the staff there can help you with reading or interpreting the results.  To find your local extension office click here.

Gather up Leaves

Each fall, gather up as many leaves as you can.  Go to the neighbor and offer to help them rake their yard and ask if you could take their leaves. I actually do this every year.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of trees on our 1 1/2 acre property but our neighbor has some really nice oak and hickory trees that are always loaded and make a really thick layer of leaves on his lawn.  We get together to mow and rake all his leaves over to our property where we pile them up and allow them to decay over the year.

Last years leaf pile being mulched and cleaned up.

Not only do I get free leaves, I also get Browns for composting, Mulch and Leaf Mold:

Browns are used a carbon in the compost pile. During canning season, I have large amounts of vegetable and fruit scraps depending on what I am caning, kitchen scraps, etc. that goes into the compost pile.  In order for compost to break down properly, I use the brown leaves as additive to my compost.

Mulch:  A good layer of mowed or shredded leaves can be added to soil to help with controlling weeds, holding in moisture, as well as adding organic matter to the soil as it decays.  This helps to feed your earthworms and microbes over the winter when the soil is not in use. I do have to be honest, you know I love working with tools.  Over the summer, I purchased a chipper shredder off Craigslist for mulching leaves and shredding limbs. Mine is a couple years older and I sure didn’t give the new price for it, I gave $125 and it works great.  It works really well on the already decaying leaves making them much smaller, and I will mulch all of the leaves that have been piled for a year and spread them on my garden, around my trees and flower beds as well.  My lawn mower does a fantastic job on mulching the leaves, but I couldn’t pass up a great bargain and I am a sucker for tools.

Aged leaves mulched and ready for garden soil

Leaf Mold:  This is the greatest stuff!  As the pile of leaves break down, the bottom layer turns into this dark rich layer of pure organic matter that is fantastic soil amendment.  I call it black gold.

Grow a Cover Crop

In my years of gardening, I have tried all of the above and have had good success, but never have I grown a cover crop.  My beds have benefited tremendously from the leaves, organic matter and mulch that has been used, but this year I have decided to try my hand at growing a cover crop.  I recently attended a class, while working on my Master Gardener certification, about the benefits of cover crops, how and why they work. I had read several articles about them, done an extensive research, but really didn’t think they could be done in raised beds.  I had always pictured them in large pastures of several acres and using a tractor to mow them down. In this recent class, I found out they can be done in raised beds.

Cover crops, also known as green manure, are probably the hardest-working plant that you can give your vegetable garden.  Not only do they suppress weeds, they also build soil, provide nitrogen, control pests and best of all, they need very little to thrive.  They will add the nutrients to my soil that was used this past season.

Since our beds are all natural with no chemicals used, I chose to grow Organic Barley I purchased from Seven Springs Farm in Check, VA.  I learned about this company from another organic CSA Farmer whose class I had the privilege of attending as well. I also like that they sell small quantities.

Since I haven’t actually done this yet, I will be taking detailed notes, about how it goes and share with you in a later blog.  I keep very detailed records of the supply of vegetables we get each year, the pests that I deal with, the rain record, as well as my watering record and I can’t wait to document the Barley Cover Crop and how it does.  I will be sure to share with you all the steps, including my successes as well as failures and I’m sure there will be some. If we don’t fail, then we don’t grow.   Stay tuned for that story.

After all this is done, take a step back, and admire your clean and well prepped vegetable garden and dream of the fruits of your labor that will come next season.  Winter will soon be here and it will be cold out.  Take advantage of the cooler temperatures and enjoy your homestead.

I would love to hear what you do to prepare your vegetable garden soil for winter.  What steps to you take, feel free to share?





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