Preparing a vegetable garden for winter is often overlooked or neglected in a gardener’s chores. By the time the fall harvest is winding down, the gardener is worn out from weeks of maintenance, but a little forethought in the late autumn months can lead to bounty all year long.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.Genesis 8:22
To ensure perpetual harvests, a good gardener cannot lay aside his tools as soon as the months begin to turn cold.
So, how do you prepare your vegetable garden for winter? Many practical steps can be taken in the late fall and winter to ensure that the spring garden does well and that the gardener can continue to harvest year-round.
To everything, there is a season, and as the seasons change, a gardener’s thoughts need to turn from harvest to stewardship. If these chores are not done in their time, not only will it put the gardener behind for spring planting, but they can miss a critical time window to complete them.
Read below to learn more about the steps gardeners can take to prepare a vegetable garden for winter in order to guarantee a bountiful holiday season and a fruitful spring.
1. Review the Vegetable Garden
Before the gardener does anything else in the garden to prepare for winter, it is a good idea to walk around the existing vegetable beds and assess the garden of the previous year. Every growing season comes with its own set of challenges, disappointments, and triumphs.
Evaluating how well the previous year’s garden did is essential for wasting less time, money and energy in the coming growing seasons. Here are some questions for a gardener to ask him/herself about the garden as winter closes in.
- Which vegetables did the household eat more often than others, and which were wasted?
- Which vegetables failed and why? (Pests, disease, growing conditions, etc…)
- Which vegetables did well and why?
- What garden tasks proved to be time-consuming and could be revised for next year?
- Should any plants be moved to a different spot to improve growing conditions?
- Where are my current crops located in the garden layout and where can I rotate them for the following season?
Late autumn is a good time to try and address problems from the previous year. It is not good to be scrambling for solutions in the midst of the growing season. The gardener has time to take on systemic issues with the garden with less urgency and more thought.
It is also important to think about the environment when revising a garden plan every year. Many small ways are available to increase a garden’s productivity and its value as a wildlife habitat without doing further damage to the earth through the use of tilling and insecticides.
As stewards of the earth as well as harvesters, this is the gardener’s duty to the land he/she works. If the land is not protected and appreciated, then it will not produce a good harvest.
2. Clean Up the Vegetable Garden
One of the most important chores a gardener has in the late autumn is to clean up the debris of failing and dead plants from the previous year’s planting. Annuals, in particular, need to be pulled up and added to the compost pile.
Gardeners should remove all diseased plant growth from the previous year, and anything with obvious mildew or other pathogens should be thrown out rather than added to the compost. Adding diseased plant material to compost can reintroduce problems when soil is amended.
Not taking the time to remove diseased plant matter can introduce the following diseases (and more) into the garden plot, making the next growing season more difficult than necessary:
- Bacterial spot/blight
- Ralstonia solanacearum (bacterial wilt)
- Thielaviopsis (black root rot)
- Cucumber mosaic virus
- Botrytis (gray mold)
- Downy mildew
- Rhizoctonia (red stem rot)
- Spider mites
One way to still utilize diseased plant materials without wasting them is to burn them in a bonfire. Once burned, the pathogens will be destroyed, and the resulting wood ash can be used to amend the garden soil with potash and potassium, which are much-needed plant nutrients.
Perennials can have their dead or damaged leaf growth removed to prevent disease, but it is advisable to leave dried seed heads and hollow-stalked perennial plants alone.
Not only do they provide visual interest in the winter garden and encourage self-propagation, but they also provide a needed habitat and food sources for overwintering pollinators and birds.
To protect the soil throughout the winter, it is a good idea to leave the root systems of beans and peas in the ground, as these provide much-needed food for microorganisms in the soil throughout the winter and will provide better earth for planting for the spring.
Taking into account all of God’s creatures that use the garden in the off-season ensures that a gardener is truly working in tandem with nature, and not against it. A gardener never knows what good is sown by considering innocent creatures lesser than him/herself.
3. Collect Vegetable Seeds and Herb Cuttings
One thing that can be done to prepare the vegetable garden for winter while doing clean-up is collecting seeds and cuttings that can be used to start the vegetable garden back up in the spring or (in the case of cuttings) keep fresh herbs growing all winter long.
Collecting Vegetable Seeds
Seed saving not only lets gardeners save money by avoiding purchasing new seed, but ambitious gardeners can also develop their own personal strains and varieties of fruits and vegetables through years of collecting seeds from the best plants.
Some other advantages of collecting seed from the spent garden:
- Removing revenue and influence from industrial agriculture corporations, which rarely have the gardener and the earth’s interests at heart
- Avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
- Cheaper procurement of next year’s crop
- Learning self-sustainability as a gardener in accordance with authentic homesteading practices that tie gardeners more directly to the land
- Being able to maintain localized landraces of customized vegetable and fruit varieties that can have increased vigor and weather tolerance compared to varieties from outside the area
- Higher germination rates from using fresher seed
- Allows a gardener to easily and cheaply share seeds with friends and family looking to get into gardening for themselves
Collecting seeds is as simple as grabbing a bucket and a handful of spent plants. Either crush, tear or roll seed heads between hands to break them open and drop the seeds inside into the bucket. Keep one seed type per bucket to avoid mix-ups when planting in spring.
Some seeds are easy to store until ready for use, while others require special steps to ensure viability, such as cold stratification. Look up each plant type that you plan to collect seeds to find in-depth instructions on how best to harvest and store the seeds for that plant.
Typically, a gardener will want to avoid “bolting” when it comes to salad greens like lettuce and herbs like cilantro so that they remain non-bitter and edible. (See our article How to Avoid Growing Bitter Tasting Lettuce in Your Garden) However, when collecting seeds each season, it is vital to allow at least a portion of the garden’s vegetables to bolt so that they produce seed.
In this way, we can not only reap the benefits of seed saving, but also connect ourselves to nature’s seasons more deeply every year.
Winter Herbs: Winterizing Outdoor Plants and Cuttings for Indoor Use
Unlike annual vegetables, many herbs are evergreen or perennial (or both). This means that a gardener can easily leave these plants outdoors to do their own thing for the winter. Some herbs that do well in the winter garden:
- Parsley (though it might go dormant in particularly harsh winters)
- Winter savory
If gardeners take the time to cover these plants up during hard frosts with some burlap tarps or straw, then they will be surprised at how long they can continue to harvest outdoors even into colder months. This is especially true of popular holiday seasoning herbs like rosemary, sage, and mint.
Once hard winter hits though, it is nice to have a collection of herbs propagated from cuttings in the winter vegetable garden indoors. This allows for comfortable access during the most hectic and cold cooking season of the year.
Some herbs do not propagate well from cuttings, such as the following:
Many herb varieties do well as cuttings and can be propagated in nothing more than a cup of water or moist earth. Herbs that do well when propagated by cuttings kept in water are the soft-stemmed herbs like:
- Lemon balm
While attempting to propagate herbs indoors for winter use, it is important to take cuttings from new, green growth, because older dry stems do not sprout roots easily. This is especially true when working with woody-stemmed herbs like:
Whenever a gardener cuts the stem of a plant, they are both doing an injury to the plant (causing stress) and cutting it off from its water source.
The cutting will have to both heal itself and dedicate energy resources into creating a new root system, so the plant must be tenderly cared for during this period to survive.
To have the greatest success with propagating cuttings, be sure to start collecting and start indoor cuttings before the temperatures start to really drop, as the growth of most plants slow greatly during this part of the season, and this drop in growth will affect propagation negatively.
4. Protect Perennials and Container Plants
Along with protecting perennial herbs from harsh winter conditions, gardeners should also protect their perennial vegetables. All perennial plants should be very well-watered during the autumn months in preparation for winter, weeks before the first frosts begin to hit.
Perennial plants should receive approximately an inch of water during the late fall growing season, and watering should continue up until the ground freezes.
Popular perennial vegetables include the following:
To protect perennial vegetables from winter damage, gardeners should prune back growth and clear all debris out of the bed before mulching with straw or shredded leaves. Mulching should not commence until around mid-November, depending on your area.
Another option is to add a bit of compost at the base of the plant, then build wire cages around perennial plants and stuff the cages with mulch or straw; this is an especially good option for tender plants that are easily damaged by frost.
Other steps gardeners can take to prepare their perennial vegetable beds:
- Do not fertilize. Fertilizing plants encourages new growth, which the plants do not need to be focusing on going into the winter season. Instead, gardeners should add compost to improve soil conditions.
- If there are perennial vegetables that die back down to the ground during winter, place plant stakes where they are in order to avoid digging them up accidentally in spring.
- Many gardeners do not know that daylilies can be harvested as a perennial vegetable. Fall preparation for the winter garden is the best time to divide these delicious and lovely edible flowers.
5. Growing the Winter Vegetable Garden
Just because the snows are on their way and the autumn harvest is winding down does not mean that a gardener needs to hang up his/her hoe. With careful preparation and a little knowledge, gardeners can continue to garden all winter long.
Planting onions, shallots and garlic (plants that are part of the allium family) is best done when preparing the vegetable beds for winter. Alliums have a very long growing season, so by getting them in the ground in late fall, gardeners can be sure to have them in the coming summer.
Here are some other vegetables gardeners can sow in the autumn to take advantage of winter bounties or early harvests in the spring:
- Plant spinach and kale: Spinach and kale can be grown perpetually, are cold-hardy and sowing it in the autumn means a delicious source of tasty and nutritious salad greens through the winter months.
- Sow broad beans and peas. Broad beans and peas planted before the ground freezes establish quickly and allow for early spring harvests. By using this method, gardeners can harvest up to 3-4 weeks earlier than people who wait until the ground thaws.
- Start an asparagus bed. If there is no asparagus in the garden yet, autumn is a great time to start some. Although it takes a few years for them to get going, asparagus can continue to crop every year up to 25 years once it is established.
- Sow twice in fall for an extended harvest. A second round of broccoli, beets, cabbage, kale, lettuce, collards, mustard, radishes, and turnips can yield produce far after the months have turned cold, and many of these (like broccoli) taste better after frost exposure.
6. Taking Care of Tools
While it is important for gardeners to tend to their plants going into the winter months, it is equally important to tend to their tools.
A number of steps can be taken when preparing the garden for winter to make sure that shovels, trowels and other gardening implements do not rust over as a result of the freeze/thaw cycle and inclement winter weather:
- Clean all garden tools of soil and other debris. Scrub them with a wire brush, then rinse and dry thoroughly.
- Once cleaned, soak all metal tools in boiled linseed oil to protect against winter rust.
- Sharpen pruning shears and other cutting tools with an oil stone or a high carbon steel-honing tool. Dull shears are not just difficult to use; they can be dangerous, making a gardener more likely to be injured trying to use them.
- Remove dried-up tree sap on cutting tools with turpentine.
- Sharpen the edges of shovels and trowels with a file or honing tool.
- Rinse fabric garden gloves thoroughly before running them (alone) through the washer and dryer. Heavy gloves can be brushed off with a towel before storage. Place in a sealed container to avoid them becoming a winter haven for spiders and other pests.
- Drain oil and gas in motorized tools like lawnmowers. Gas that is overwintered does not spark well and will make spring gardening activities more difficult than necessary.
- Make sure hoses are thoroughly drained and stored away, and that outdoor faucets are winterized to avoid burst pipes from freezing temperatures.
- Put all gardening tools up in clean, dry storage. Keep tools well-organized to avoid discouragement and hassle in the spring when it is time to plant again.
7. Weed Control for Spring
One of the most important tasks in preparing a garden for winter is preventing the propagation of weeds. Because many perennial weeds grow through rhizomes or deep root systems, it is vital that they are removed root and stem to avoid propagation in the spring.
While annual weeds can be deterred through mulching for the winter to impede spring growth, perennial weeds are best controlled in the fall by hand removal, and include the following:
- Field bindweed
- Yellow nutsedge
- Wild violet
- White clover
- Buckhorn Plantain
- Ground Ivy
It should be noted that many of these common weeds, such as dandelion, white clover, and plantain can also be used medicinally in salves and teas, while plants like pokeweed and wild violets are fully edible and can be used in salads.
To take full advantage of nature’s bounty, gardeners can research these plants individually to make the most of their garden’s harvest, wild or not.
The best way to control spring weed growth other than to root out perennial weeds (and preferably harvest them for good use) is to make sure not to leave bare ground in the garden plot over the winter.
This can be accomplished by either mulching or installing green manure crops like cereal rye, which can be used without the need for tilling, unlike some other cover crops. Not only do cover crops prevent weed growth, but they also provide excellent nutrients to soil condition.
8. Amend the Soil
Winter soil preparation is one of the most significant steps a gardener can take to improve their plot year by year, but it is also one of the steps that is most often neglected.
The most economical and thrifty source of soil amendments comes from compost, the gardener’s best friend. Gardeners should layer approximately two to four inches of amended soil over existing soil in winter to improve soil conditions and help fight topsoil erosion from watering and harvesting.
By collecting discarded plant material like fallen leaves and other garden debris throughout the autumn months, gardeners can gather pounds of rich organic material to inject back into vegetable beds, replenishing lost minerals, supporting microorganisms, and preventing waste.
Along with a good layer of compost and organic mulch like straw or shredded leaves, other additives that can be used to amend the soil in preparation for winter are as follows:
- Matured manure
- Dolomitic limestone
- Wood ash
It is also helpful once a year as part of winter preparations for the vegetable garden to have a soil test performed. This can be done at most farmer’s extensions or local agricultural cooperatives. You can find an online soil test that we have used here on our products page Best Soil Amendments.
It is best to have the soil tested in winter in order to receive the results of the test early enough to make specific soil amendments before the spring planting season.
To prepare a soil sample for testing, use the following steps:
- Take small cores of soil (about 6-8 inches) from several areas in the vegetable garden.
- Mix these core samples together in one bag to represent a cross-section of the garden plot’s soil conditions.
- 1-2 cups of this mixed soil should be submitted for testing.
Along with providing necessary nutrients in soil amendments, the soil should also be amended in order to account for localized soil conditions. Good growing soil should be friable (crumbling between the fingers) and should stay moist without becoming waterlogged.
We have written a great article on easy ways you can check if your soil is healthy. Check that out here for more information How to Know if Your Soil is Healthy: 11 Simple Tests.
Poor soil types include sandy soils and clay-based soils. If the garden has a specific kind of poor soil that needs to be amended for growing conditions, here are a few ways to do it:
- Sandy soils: Soils that are sandy should be amended with heavy, rich organic matter to increase water retention and nutrients. Sandy soil does not give plant root systems a good structure to build on.
- Clay soils: Clay-heavy soils should be amended with compost, sand, and gypsum to make it easier to work with and allow plants to develop strong root systems in it. Clay soil becomes packed and does not allow nutrients to reach plants effectively.
Another soil condition to take into consideration when assessing soil is pH. Most organic creatures can only survive within a very specific pH range, and different plants require different ranges of pH to truly thrive.
Soil pH can be either increased or decreased according to necessity. When gardeners use organic compost and a no-till method of gardening, soil pH is typically maintained naturally through microorganisms in healthy soil structures. God’s perfect design of nature produces a pH of 7 (His favorite number!).
If the soil is damaged by tilling, erosion, or other factors, then pH will likely need to be adjusted manually according to soil test results. To adjust alkaline soils, the following soil additives can be used:
- Shredded leaves
- Peat moss
- Cottonseed meal
- Pine needles
- Coffee grounds
- Oak leaves
To adjust acidic soils, the following soil additives can be used:
- Ground oyster shells or clamshells
- Hardwood ashes
- Ground eggshells
Soil type should also be taken into consideration when deciding what vegetables to plant and where. Some vegetables and herbs, such as carrots and lavender, require specialized soil conditions in order to grow correctly.
Care should be taken to learn each plant’s preferences before planting for best results. This research is a perfect task for the winter gardener, when outdoor chores are not quite as pressing and the main sowing season is months ahead.
When most people think of gardening, they think of it as a spring or summer activity. However, if gardeners want to truly work in full connection with the seasons, it is fairly easy to take some simple steps towards making sure they have a garden that produces all year round.
As the weather turns cold, this can depress people who are used to working under the sun with their hands in the earth. However, a time of the year that can feel like death and a drawing away of the sun can, with the right perspective, be a season of hope and good cheer, even for gardeners.
Not only will gardeners gain practical benefits from performing these fall tasks by having a more productive season in the winter and spring, winterizing garden chores allow gardeners to meditate on their year-long place as guardians of the earth, even as it sleeps. So even as the first snows fall and the cold autumn winds howl, keep those trowels oiled and remember: no winter lasts forever, and hope springs eternal.
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