Updated: Jul 20, 2022
Preparing your garden beds for winter is basically the same thing as preparing your vegetable garden for next year’s growing season. Whichever way you look at it, it is worth taking some time to tidy things up once the current season ends, as this will allow you to hit the ground running when spring comes around again.
By the end of the summer, once you’ve harvested all the crops from your garden, things can end up looking a bit of a mess. This can make the pre-winter tidy-up feel a little overwhelming, but fear not! To make the process less daunting, we recommend that you break tasks up and tackle only one thing at a time, during the early fall.
It can also sometimes help to work through your garden one bed (or area) at a time, until all tasks are complete throughout. Once complete, everything is nicely cleaned up and ready for winter.
Ideally, you’ll want to reuse the same veggie-growing space, and avoid having to prepare a new bed when spring arrives. In order to achieve this, there are a couple of simple steps that are worth taking.
Since certain diseases can survive on foliage and vegetables that are left in your garden over winter, we recommend removing all dead plants or rotten vegetables from your space.
Ditch the diseased plants. I know it can be easy to think that it'll get better...eventually. But it's also easy for disease to spread. If you have a rosemary bush that you couldn't bring back to health in the summer, it's very unlikely to get stronger in the winter. So ditch the diseased plants to make room for healthy soil and stronger future plants before one sick crop turns into 2, and 5, or 12 :)
Take note of which of your crops are hardy enough to stay put. Keeping in mind that some hardy crops will tolerate a hard frost (usually 25° to 28°F) , so can be comfortably left in the ground. Some of them even get a little sweater after a touch of frost. Brussels sprouts can stay in the ground. If you get extreme colds, hill up hay or leaves in the late fall so that it reaches up to the leaves, then pull sprouts to your hearts content through winter. Broccoli and spinach on the other can can often even survive without protection. And garlic...ooooh garlic! You can often plant them now, let them be dormant and then they'll emerge in the spring. Just don't do this if you have mild winters as having soggy soil rather than frosted soil could lead to rot.
Prepare your herbs for victory. Sage, is a perennial in most areas that doesn’t normally need a lot of special treatment. Rosemary, needs protection in zones 6 and 7.If you’re in Zone 5 or lower, you’re going to want to transplant it into a pot and ideally bring it inside if you can. Thyme is nearly indestructible. Every year I think it’s done for and then poof! Thyme has a way of reviving itself as soon as spring settles in. Oregano is somewhat hardy, but will thank you for some winter protection.
Push aside any weeds or old mulch from your beds, and add a layer of compost. Once the compost is in place, lightly cover the beds back over with the old mulch you previously moved. This will help to suppress new weeds, and will protect your soil from the winter weather that’s to come.
Feed your soil for spring with organic fertilizer (bone meal, kelp and rock phosphate), or nutrient rich compost and manure.
Test your soil so you know if there's anything out of balance. For example Lime is commonly used to adjust the soil pH. Adding lime in the fall is beneficial because it has all winter to dissolve into the soil. Other things things worth checking for are levels of potassium (K), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), sulfur (S) and Nitrogen
Add lime if need be (it also tends to go on sale in the fall)
Plant cover crops to protect your soil over the harsh winter months. Rye, clover, and vetch are popular choices for preventing soil erosion. Clover and field peas are a great winter cover crop if you're planning on planting nitrogen loving crops there in the future as they'll naturally build up your soils nitrogen reserves. Remember that soil test when you looked into nitrogen levels. This is good to know when selecting your cover crops.
Chopping cover crop with sharp garden shears is usually pretty quick and easy. The cuttings are placed on top for about 3-4 weeks before planting time to provide nutrients.
If you want your cover crops to be easy-to mow and turn into the soil, aim to cut them down while the leaves are still green. Some will turn to a stiff straw if left to mature too long.
Speaking of mowing, mow your lawn as late in the fall season. If you can, aim for a height of about two to three inches and leave clippings on the lawn. This actually returns around 25% of the turf's nitrogen back to the soil.
Trim back your perennials - but not all. Crops that like a small trim in the fall include rosemary, thyme, sage, fennel, asparagus, blackberries and rhubarb. Plants like do better if you wait until sprint to do any cutting back include: raspberries because the dry branches that seem dead on the surface, have actually shown that they help nurture the plant in the winter.
Compost! Top up garden beds or planters with compost. They get compost, and they get compost, everyone gets compost! :) (really hope you get that joke hahaha) Amending now helps proactively nourish your soil as a jumpstart for spring planting.
Remember the mulch you cleaned up above? Time for some fresh natural new mulch. Adding soil in the winter helps protect soil from erosion and weeds. Adding a generous layer of mulch on the soil does wonders for regulating soil temperature and moisture which is useful for many reasons. My favorite is helping any root vegetables still in the ground stay strong against hard frosts and extend your crop. Plus as an added bonus, mulch breaks down nicely and can then be incorporates fresh organic material into your soil.
As odd as it sounds, the end of fall is the perfect time to do a "spring cleaning" on all of your garden supplies and tools to prepare them for spring. This way when the sun starts shining, all your tools are ready to go. Trust me, the last thing you're going to want to do on the first day of spring is repair shovel handles, and clean off old chunks of stuff on your tools. The end of fall is perfect for this.
Head to the garden center for sales galore. Most seeds have a shelf life of about 2-4 years depending on the package; however, stores usually carry seeds that are only a year old or less. The end of fall is a great time to load up on seeds for what you'd like to grow in the spring.
If you're planning on adding any more garden beds or expanding the ones you have, this is the perfect time to do so. Not only are materials and soil bags on sale, the winter provides time for soil to settle. You'll find that you need to add in more come spring, but it's better that this happens over winter than while you have a crop. You don't want packed soil, but freshly poured soil in that volume just settles too much, so do it now so you can enjoy it then.
Turn off you watering connections and drip, sprinkler and what ever type of irrigation systems you may have setup. In warmer climates you might be able to get away with just disconnecting everything and letting the water drain out. Colder climates might benefit from blasting out the water with an air compressor, or if you have space, then bring everything inside for the winter months.
Empty containers so they don't crack during the old winter months and flip them upside down so they can't fill with water.
Show some love for natures friends that help you so much in the summer. Remember those lovely birds who kept mice away? Winter can be challenging for them. So please, please top up your bird feeders. Birds are especially thankful for high energy giving, fatty seeds during cold winters.
Now all you need to do is sit back and let nature take its course, knowing that once the snow disappears and spring has sprung, you’ll be ready for more gardening action.