Winter is a lovely season to rest and spend free time flipping through the seed catalogs, earmarking way too many varieties, and doing a bit of dreaming and garden planning. We spend these months looking forward to spring when we can get out in the garden again. Unfortunately, spring can be both a fun and overwhelming time. There’s so much to do! Here are five garden projects you can complete this winter to get ahead for spring.
Start or Maintain a Compost
Compost is one of the best garden amendments. It adds nutrients, builds soil structure, and improves drainage. Composting is also a great way to reduce your household waste and you can start a compost pile any time of year. Visit Black Gold: Making Compost for a beginners guide or Winter Composting for more seasonal advice.
Build Season Extenders
You don’t have to build an enormous greenhouse or a desire to grow food year round to create and use season extenders. Simple cold frames can help you start and harden off seedlings earlier. Low tunnels allow you to harvest cold hardy greens and brassicas earlier in the spring and protect them from summer heat and insects as the season continues.
Create your own cold frames this winter with simple materials like straw bales, wood, and old windows. You can also gather supplies for low-tunnels. You can purchase low tunnel supplies from many garden suppliers or you can diy your own with materials like PVC, tulle, and plastic.
Maintain and Repair Tools
Don’t wait until you need them next spring to get your tools in order. Winter is a great time to sharpen blades, replace broken handles and in the case of power equipment, gather supplies for spring oil changes and other needed maintenance.
One of the cardinal rules of sustainable gardening is to never leave bare soil. Bare soil creates opportunity for erosion and is poor habitat for beneficial insects, fungi, and organisms. Take advantage of any warm days this winter to cover bare spots in your garden. Old leaves work great for this!
On the days where the weather is truly to bad to be out, you can continue your gardening education. We’re never done learning! Read some seed saving books, listen to your favorite garden podcasts, or settle down with a show and some popcorn.
The growing season is often too busy tackle all the projects we’d like. Get ahead this season with these five winter garden projects.
Fall gardens are generally touted as being a great way to get another harvest out of a small garden. They’re great for a few other reasons too. Fall is a wonderful time to work in the garden as the heat and humidity lessens. There’s also generally less pest pressure in the fall, meaning you might still get to put up some sauerkraut even if cabbage moths attacked your spring cabbage crop. A lesser discussed benefit is that some fall crops actually become sweeter after a frost.
Why are plants sweeter after a frost?
Unlike animals, vegetables can’t move south for winter, find a cozy den, or grow and extra thick coat. To survive the cold, certain plants have evolved a way to cope with colder temperatures. First, the plants’ cell walls thicken. These thicker walls contain less moisture and freeze less easily. The other part of this process, is the one that we as gardeners relish, the plants convert more of their starches to sugar. This has several benefits. Using the sugar produces energy, in effect, keeping the plant warmer. The sugar also decreases the formation of ice in the cell and prevents the cell membrane from freezing. This process is good for the plant and tasty for the gardener!
What plants do this?
Brassicas (Cabbage Family)
These plants thrive in cool temperatures making them ideal for fall planting. They can withstand temperatures down to 20°F and some like burssels sprouts can withstand much colder (down to 0°F). Row cover can be used to extend the season further and protect crops from damaging cold winds.
Carrots & Beets
Both beets and carrots benefit from a layer of mulch around their tops in cold weather. In southern climates, these roots can be left in the ground over winter and harvested as needed. To protect the tops for eating beet greens or to keep them growing you may need to use row cover or a cold frame to protect them during consistently cold temperatures.
Turnips & Rutabagas
Turnips and rutabagas are vastly sweetened by cold temperatures. Rutabagas should be harvested before temperatures drop to 20°F but turnips can handle colder temperatures particularly if they’ve been covered in a thick layer of mulch.
In many areas, leeks can be overwintered and survive temperatures down to 10°F. If you’re harvesting leeks from frozen ground our friend Pam Dawling recommends pouring boiling water on the base of the plants if you’re harvesting a few for immediate use.
Swiss chard is fairly cold-hardy but it does best with some protection particularly if you live in an area with strong winds. To prolong your chard harvest use row cover or a cold frame. We’ve found Ruby Red Swiss Chard to be more frost tolerant than other varieties.
After a long summer it can be difficult to find the time and motivation to sow a fall garden. It really is worth it though! Plant a few of these crops for a sweet fall harvest.
For many fall seems like the time when things begin to wind down. It’s time for hot meals, enjoying the harvest, and snuggling up by the fire. However seasoned gardeners know that spending more time in your garden in the fall can lead to an easier spring. There’s still plenty of projects!
Sow fall crops.
There’s actually many varieties that are great for fall planting. Plants like garlic and winter wheat do best with a start in the cool months of fall. There’s also many root vegetables like carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips that can provide a late harvest along with hardy greens like arugula, pak choi, spinach, and mustards. Depending on your zone you may need to use season extenders like low tunnels and cold frames to keep your garden alive in late fall and winter.
Make sure there’s no exposed soil!
This is super important to maintaining a healthy and productive garden. Leaving soil exposed kills off beneficial fungi, bacteria, and insects. It also makes soil vulnerable to erosion and allows weeds to get an early hold in the spring.
The best way to combat this is though the use of cover crops. You can find more about planting fall cover crops and Southern Exposure’s offerings from this article, Fall Cover Crops & Their Importance. You can even use some traditional food crops (like mustard greens) as cover crops! If you cannot plant a cover crop at least consider covering the garden in mulch such as old leaves, hay, straw, or shredded newspaper. These block weeds, provide habitat for beneficial insects, and hold moisture which is necessary for good bacteria and fungi to thrive.
Plant some perennials.
There’s also many perennials you can add to your garden in fall. Perennial onions and certain flower bulbs like crocuses and daffodils are great for fall planting. Many fruit and nut trees and bushes can be fall planted as well.
Mulch existing perennials.
Placing mulch around the base of existing perennials can help prevent frost from reaching killing the roots (especially important with newly established plants). It can also help prevent weeds in the spring while you’re busy with spring planting and as it breaks down it will add nutrients to the soil. When mulching try to avoid making a thick “volcano” mulch mound around the trunk or base of the plant. Piles of mulch like this provide places for rodents to hid and chew on your plants.
Take care of your tools and equipment. Speaking of tools, you will definitely feel the need for a Cordless hedge trimmer for your garden, as this device works wonders in maintaining the aesthetics of your garden.
Fall maintenance can help keep your garden tools in tip top shape. Make sure to brush at least most of the dirt off your tools and sharpen any that need it. Some people use a bucket full of sand and old vegetable oil to plunge bladed tools (like shovels) into to get them extra clean and sharp after the big chunks of dirt have been removed. You may also want to sand down and rub linseed oil on any wooden handled tools that need it. Any equipment that uses fuel like rototillers should be drained or run out of fuel for winter. This is because leaving fuel for that long without running the equipment can plug up carburetors.
If there’s tools or equipment that need replaced or equipment which needs professional maintenance it’s best to get it over with in the fall without the pressure of spring planting looming.
Start Planning for next year.
While not everyone may be enthused about having an extensive plan for their garden having a few basics mapped out can help you create an easier to manage and more productive garden. Planning should include looking at what seeds you still have or have saved considering what seeds you’d like to purchase and reconciling that with how much your garden will actually fit (not as many as anyone wants to believe). You should also consider a crop rotation including any areas that will be in cover crops. You can find the Southern Exposure garden planner to help with that here. You may also choose to consider your seed starting set up for next year. Some garden supply stores will have sales in the fall which you can take advantage of instead of paying full price next spring.
Test and amend your soil.
People typically test their soil and add amendments in the spring but there’s no reason not to get this checked off in the fall. It’s actually preferable to add things like manure in the fall so that it decomposes as much as possible before planting.
Leave some things alone.
The rest of this article may add a bunch of projects to your to do list but here’s one thing you can skip. Don’t cut down, rake, and remove all the dead plant material from your garden unless you’re combating a specific disease or insect that overwinters in the material. While you may think your garden looks tidier barren this plant material actually helps many beneficial insects survive the winter.
Get a step ahead in your garden while the weather is cool and pleasant. By doing some basic fall tasks you can be prepared for spring planting and get crops in the ground right on time. You may also end up with a healthier more productive garden without too much effort. Happy autumn!