How to Winterize Your Vegetable Garden

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close-up of carrots freshly harvested from the ground with dirt still on them

Don’t hang up your gardening tools on the pegboard just yet. Winterizing your vegetable garden is a key step in preparing for a successful spring. It’s not as hard as you think, but it does take a little knowledge and elbow grease to winterize your garden well.

To get your garden ready for colder temps you will need to:

1. Harvest your crops

person harvesting grape tomatoes from their garden
Priscilla Du Preez | Unsplash

Once you’ve harvested the summer’s bounty from your garden beds, you’re left with fruitless tomato plants, empty cucumber vines, and spent stalks of herbs that have gone to seed. The next step after harvest is to remove stalks, vines, and other debris to make way for next season’s growth. 

But wait — don’t throw these in the trash bin. Plant debris (disease-free only, please) should go in your compost bin. (Tip: Chop it with a tiller to help it break down faster.)

You may be tempted to let this debris sit until spring, but overwintering this plant material is not a good idea. Leaving debris in your vegetable beds can provide shelter or larval host sites for pests and may encourage disease. If you clean up debris now, you give yourself a clean slate come spring and avoid encouraging pests and disease over the winter.

2. Compost for best results

infographic showing the materials used in composting. Including the most common brown and green options.

Late fall is the perfect time of year to build or add to your compost pile. With a little bit of elbow grease throughout the winter season, you should have rich “black gold” by spring. 

Reasons to use compost and start your own pile:

  • Great for raised beds or traditional garden beds
  • Adds organic matter to the soil — helps with water infiltration, resiliency during drought, and improves soil structure 
  • A perfect way to make use of fallen leaves. (Tip: Shredded leaves will break down even faster, so use the lawn mower with the bag attachment to make quick work of this.)
  • Building a compost bin is a great off-season winter gardening project 
  • Compost can be used throughout the growing season
  • “Add compost” is probably the most oft-repeated gardening tip you’ll hear. This is one rare case where all the experts agree!

If you don’t yet have a compost pile, it’s a great DIY project. 

How to build a simple compost pile: 

  • Grab a roll of chicken wire
  • Unroll it and flatten it out on the ground
  • Stand it up to make a cylinder
  • Use wire ties or whatever you have to secure the ends together
  • Add leaves and kitchen scraps
  • Turn with a pitchfork at least once per week
  • Let the composting begin!

3. Add nutrients

After you take your plants out of the bed, add 2 to 3 inches of compost and other organic material to add nutrition to the soil. In addition to the stuff you may already have in your compost bin, here are a few other options that help add nutrients to your soil:

  • Mushroom compost
  • Aged, chopped leaves
  • Freshly chopped leaves (add 1 lb. ammonium sulfate per 100 square feet to help them break down)
  • Worm castings
  • Cow or chicken manure (avoid horse manure — high chance of herbicide residue)

Whether or not to till the soil is up to you. Different schools of thought exist, so do your research and decide what’s best for your garden.

Exception: If you want to get a soil test, take your sample and wait for the results before you amend the soil. If you’re not taking a soil test this year, go ahead and add your soil amendments.

4. Put the garden to bed

person's hands covered in dirt from fresh planting in a garden bed
Sandie Clarke | Unsplash

If you want to plant a winter garden, see the next tip. If not, here are two ways to put your garden to bed for the winter.

  • Cover the area with plastic

After you add a few inches of organic matter, cover the bed with black plastic or weed cloth. The idea is to prevent weed seeds from settling on the soil and taking root in spring. Weigh down the plastic with small stakes, bricks, or whatever you have on hand.

  • Plant a cover crop

Instead of covering the bed, you may want to plant a cover crop instead. Add a few inches of compost to your beds (raised or in-ground). Then, choose a cover crop based on what you want to accomplish and when you’re planting. Here are a few commonly used crops:

  • Alfalfa
  • Annual ryegrass
  • Beans
  • Buckwheat
  • Clovers
  • Hairy vetch
  • Oats
  • Peas
  • Rapeseed
  • Winter wheat
  • Winter rye

You can accomplish many things with cover crops: erosion control, weed suppression, and nitrogen fixation (adding nitrogen to the soil). You also may notice less soil compaction or an increase in the number of earthworms. Like compost, cover crops can help increase soil organic matter as well. 

Below are a few resources from Extension offices around the country. Search online or contact your local Extension office for information specific to your state.

Fun Fact: Cover crops are also known as catch crops or green manure.

5. Protect your garden from chilly weather

If you planted a fall garden back in August, September, or October, your plants may need a little extra protection for the winter months ahead. 

  • Tip #1: Apply a layer of mulch

Root crops appreciate at least 4 inches of mulch before that first frost. Mulching helps keep the soil at a more consistent, warmer temperature.

  • Tip #2: Install low tunnels 

When temps are expected to drop below freezing, install low tunnels over lettuce and other above-ground plants. A light coating of mulch also helps regulate soil temps.

Constructing frames works better than simply laying a covering over the plants to insulate them: Frost damage may occur if plant leaves come in contact with the cover, and the extra air space provides additional insulation from freezing temperatures and drying winter winds. 

Clear plastic or row covers work well as a covering material. Remove the covers on days when it gets above freezing to allow more light and to prevent excess heat.

Pro Tip: Harvest on days when it is above freezing. Frozen leaves won’t recover once they’ve been cut from the stem.

6. Take notes to get ready for next year

display of a wide variety of vegetable seed packets
ParentingPatch | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Grab a notebook and set up a gardening journal or record for next year’s growing season. If you plant a fall garden, now’s a good time to take note of a few things:

✓ Seed company (Burpee, Seeds of Change, Ferry-Morse, etc.)
✓ Seed lot #
✓ Crop name
✓ Crop variety
✓ Fertilizer added – brand, amount, date
✓ Date planted
✓ Date of harvest
✓ Notes

A garden record is not just good for your veggie garden, it’s also helpful for other things you want to keep track of. Where did you plant those dahlias two years ago? Did those summer coneflower blooms attract lots of pollinators as you had hoped? What was that brand of landscape fabric that worked well (or didn’t)?

Gardening journals are a good way to stay organized and help you plan for successful growing seasons to come. 

If your veggie gardens are monopolizing your weekend energies, you might need a little extra help mowing the lawn. We’ve got you covered. Contact one of our lawn care professionals to get in those last few mows before the winter season hits.

Main Photo Credit: Markus Spiske | Unsplash

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