The third and final part of The Fall Garden Grind series is an info-packed article revolving around that most important part of your garden: the soil. This is an easy step to skip when we’re caught up in the busyness of life, but putting your garden to bed for the winter will help build soil fertility and as a result make your garden more productive in years to come. Just as you slumber with a heavy blanket over your tired body, so must your garden rest in the off season. In this final part we’ll explore just what kind of blanket your garden bed likes to rest under for the winter. New to The Fall Garden Grind series? Follow these links to read Part I and Part II.
So you’ve followed the steps in Part I, you put up all your tomatoes, peppers, and squash for the season and you’re left with a lot of plant foliage out in those beds. Before you go crazy yanking up everything in sight, do a little search on no-till gardening. You will feel liberated! “You mean I don’t have to go turn over every square inch of my garden soil?” For those of us that enjoy back-breaking work, this is a bit anti-climactic, but it’s true, you don’t have to.
Leaving the plant roots in the ground helps maintain the soil structure. While that’s a topic worthy of its own post, the most basic rundown goes like this: There are layers of different matter in the soil. The layers at the top of your garden bed are best kept at the top, and the layers a foot under are best kept down there. Additionally, your garden beds have been expertly aerated by your garden pals, the ants and worms. So why ruin their work? Instead, take the approach of layering in your garden to build a wonderful, rich humus (I’m not talking that delicious tahini-based spread, I’m talking decaying plant matter – equally good in my book!).
The first blanket
I recommend just cutting your plants back at the soil line. The roots and all their enzymes are kept where they’re at, but you’re still cleaning your bed up in preparation for Spring planting. If your plants are free of disease, you can toss them into your compost heap OR simply lay them down on top of the soil right where they were for your first winter blanket. (If they are diseased, best to burn them or send them off with your city pick-up.) These roots and plant matter will decompose over time, adding to your soil health. I find that some woody plants are still pretty hard come springtime, but they can be laid to the side and used as part of your mulch.
The second blanket
After you’ve cut back your plants and laid them down, you can add a substantial layer of compost, manure, or animal bedding on top. Using manure in your garden has huge benefits, but it is best put down in the fall to allow time for decomposition. (Speaking of compost, fall is a good time to turn over the heap you’ve been building all summer!)
When you add your compost or manure, it is also a good time to add additional amendments for adjusting the pH or mineral levels. If you don’t have an idea where your soil stands, you can have a soil test run. It is really helpful, easy to accomplish and usually affordable through your nearest university extension.
The third and final blanket
With your nutrient-rich compost down, it’s time to top it all off to reduce erosion. Please, don’t leave your precious compost exposed all winter! The easiest way to do this is to mulch. Instead of sending your leaf matter off in those yard waste bags, feed it to your garden! Lay it on thick, but break up any solid leaf sheets that would prevent water from coming through. This protects your soil, helps keep the weeds back in Fall and early Spring, and builds soil matter over time. In the Spring, your mulch will be decomposing. Leave it there, put your transplants into it, or part rows in it for laying down seed. Then add new, fresh mulch on top of that to keep a good thing going.
Alternatively, cover cropping acts as a living mulch. Instead of laying down dead leaves, you can grow clover, buckwheat, oats or rye grass to name a few. Like mulch, these plants build soil health by keeping weeds at bay, some fix nitrogen from the air and conduct it back into the soil, and all break down and build soil matter over time, improving your soil fertility. The cover crop you choose depends on the severity of your winter and if you want it to die over winter. Some cover crops even do great growing alongside your vegetables in the summer! Order seeds or read more about the different types to find out what best suits your needs here.
I often need to throw in a disclaimer on my posts. While I garden in zone 4a, you might be reading this from zone 8, and that’s a big difference! Some of you lucky folks don’t have to put your garden to bed entirely. You might happily harvest kale all winter, or pull up cool-season carrots in January. If that’s you, follow my steps where your garden is resting, but maintain those winter beds so you can keep growing your winter-loving crops (then send me some pics for a little mid-winter pick-me-up, please!)
Ok, after writing this series, I’m realizing I have a lot of work to do. I best get to it! Happy gardening! Catch Parts I and II of The Fall Garden Grind series here.