Hey, it is time for bed. Have you tucked your garden into bed for the coming winter? Here it is December already, but it is not too late to make your garden more productive for the next season. For those of you in the “what winter” areas, some of these tips may still be of value. For those of us in the northern tier, it is not yet time to go indoors and forget that garden until sometime next spring.
We in the maritime Pacific Northwest often continue some gardening year-round. By now the winter transplants are already in and getting strong enough to make it through the coming weather, which here varies from year to year: rain and floods, warm or really cold with snow, sleet, ice storms, windstorms always a possibility. In fact, a common saying is “If you do not like the weather, wait a half hour.” Still most years with a bit of protection, most greens survive to offer fresh food in early spring and even some through the winter.
The major things we look at now are soil care, making sure drainage is good even in the downpours, managing our microclimates, preventing root freezing and cleanup.
Soil care is number one for me. No soil should be left open to the weather. This means cover cropping, mulching, covering in some other way. It is really too late in most areas to plant a cover crop as these go in late August to mid-October as a rule. However, easy weeds can do that job for you. First you have to eliminate the villains, such as weeds which run underground like Olympians. This includes many grasses and some real problems like Canada thistle and field bindweed. Even deep mulches often will not deter these bad boys. Winter annuals are great as a free and valuable cover crop: chickweed, dead nettle, heal-all, bittercress are a few of my allies. A good dense stand of these will protect the soil from winter compaction and also give harborage to beneficial insects come spring. I have used this technique a lot for years. The key is these should be plants which are easy to pull out! Where we have plants growing, leaf mulches as deep as feasible are nice. Not all leaves are created equal, but mainly leaves from the walnut and horsechestnut family should be avoided. My top favorite is maple. Black plastic and black groundcloths can also be used, but sooner or later you have to deal with their removal and fragmentation. Also, if left on permanently, they will damage the soil, making it anaerobic and dead. They are fine for a quick warm up, smothering weeds and reducing excess water for a season or two. Then they should be removed and rolled up and stored dark until needed again. My favorite is in the accompanying picture. It is coffee sacks in which the green beans are shipped to the coffee roasters. Since the world seems to have gone fancy coffees mad, there is usually a pretty good supply of these lovely, tight woven, heavy bags. Check with your local coffee roaster. In our area they are either free or around 50 cents apiece. They are quite large and heavy. I overlap them slightly to discourage sneaky weeds. Coffee bags encourage earthworms that move in under them and work the soil most of the winter. For some reason, earthworms are very attracted to coffee. When I pull up the bags to plant the next year, the soil is so friable and enriched with worm droppings that it is a joy. The worms also eat the bags, so in some area those are ready for compost after a winter protecting our soils from compaction, unwanted weeds and excess moisture
We use mostly raised beds here. It is so nice not to have to get down on the ground to tend the beds. They are excellent for ease of working, since they only get better. Because they are not tilled all the time (turning up weeds and damaging the soil biosystems) nor walked on, the raised bed soil tends to get fluffier each year. Of course, you need to do your part by replenishing the organic matter that drives the biosystem and which we harvest as food and flowers. There are many ways to do that, and one of the easiest is simply to return all usable organic matter from your landscapes to the soil that produced it. If you prefer, you can make compost piles and use the broken down remnants to feed your soil. Putting a heavy leaf mulch down and then covering is a quick way to a great garden. The other big advantage to a raised bed is that they drain and warm more quickly in the spring so we can get those peas and greens going earlier. Winter is a great time to start some raised beds which fit your physical needs as well. Look up Lasagna Bed Gardening and Adaptive Gardening for some really neat and easy fixes.
Managing your microclimate starts with protecting the soil, but beyond that determined gardeners, even in the very cold states, can also protect the plants and extend the growing season. There are row covers which allow moisture and air to pass through and most of the light, but which capture the ground heat at night. My preference is not to lay those covers directly on the plants, as is usually recommended. Young greens in particular are prone to abrasion by the covers in wind and a lack of air space between the plants and the cover means more danger of cold damage. I use mini-greenhouses, also called cloches. We make ours with concrete reinforcing wire often found at building sites as extras (be sure to ask) or purchased by the roll at building supply stores. Buy a pair of long-handled bolt cutters at the same time to cut your cloches to size. These form Quonset huts automatically over which you drape your protection. You can fasten the cover on or let it drape to each side on the soil and put a heavy board or bricks on it. Properly set up, these also prevent most insect damage in the growing season. If it starts to get really cold, you can add a layer of clear plastic. For a short period an old blanket works well. Besides being very sturdy and lasting about forever, the mesh of the wire is large enough to reach through for weeding and most harvesting. They also stack to store. Another common cloche is made of PVC pipe and there are many different designs of these on the internet. It too can be double covered. It must be well reinforced if you get much snow or ice or it may collapse, which never happens with the wire cloches. It also degrades in time and becomes brittle.
All the organic mulches give good root protection for your perennials, but they do block ground heat from rising around them. Protection against root freezing is more important for containers. Roots are never as hardy as tops and may suffer in a container from overheating in summer and freezing to death in winter. If you group all your pots tightly together, it gives a good degree of protection. You can also insulate individual pots by dropping a cardboard box over them and filling in the spaces with insulating material, shavings, etc. Plants that have gone fully dormant are very freeze resistant, but if they receive reflected sunlight it can actually prevent or reverse dormancy. This is especially true of our containers. If you do a lot of small containers, you can actually drop them in a trench and cover with shavings or bark and get considerable protection.
Lastly let’s consider cleanup. Most gardeners are too darned neat. The garden needs its natural cycles as well. Leaving the tops to fall down on the perennials protects the crowns and feeds the plants. Leaving seed heads feeds the birds and shelters the beneficial insects and spiders. Of course, as soon as the new growth starts, the old stuff can be trimmed away. When you are removing the tomatoes, peppers, annuals, corn etc. just cut them off at ground level. Over winter the roots will add valuable organic matter, keep the soil drainage open and save a lot of work. The clean up you want to look at is tools, loose junk in the garden, trellises , diseased plants and plant parts, perennial weeds, hoses and other irrigation equipment.
Plant early growing and blooming treasures as well. Now is not too late for bulbs in dormant or empty containers or even right where those tomatoes were. You can even scatter leaf lettuce and Lamb’s lettuce (aka mache or corn salad) over the surface of the prefertilized worked up soil and gently firm them in with a board or the like. These will happily sleep away the winter and pop up early spring for fresh salad thinnings. After they have been thinned to 8-12″ you can use them as a marvelous cut and come again green. Chickweed and bittercress are usually available as wild greens at the same time. Yum!
Once all is tucked away and fed for the winter, you can enjoy your winter. If you get snow all winter, it is the best insulation for the garden that exists. Still, it does not hurt to wander out into the garden in the winter and observe how it looks, lives, and reacts at that time also. Often you will become hooked on that strange, somewhat bedraggled beauty as well. In our maritime climate, of course, slug and snail patrol is simply a fact of life 24/7, so it is a great incentive to keep an eye on our garden and get our winter exercise.