Winter can be a volatile time of year for plants, especially vegetables. The weather conditions often associated with winter—such as snow, sleet, and wind—can be a vegetable gardener’s worst nightmare. However, many steps can be taken to ensure successful growth and harvest during this season. It all starts with preparation.
How should gardeners prepare a vegetable garden for winter? Many ways exist to help ensure vegetable plants are ready for the cold months ahead:
- Clear away debris from summer planting.
- Test and prepare the soil.
- Replenish mulch and compost.
- Plant soil-friendly cover crops.
- Assess previous winter seasons and plan accordingly.
These are only starting points to make sure a vegetable garden thrives through the winter months. The types of vegetables planted and how they are maintained are other topics gardeners must be mindful of to have a successful growing season.
5 Steps to Prepare a Vegetable Garden for Winter
The following tips offer ways gardeners can best prepare their gardens for the upcoming winter season:
Step 1: Clear away debris from summer plants
Many vegetable gardens start as lawns or a combination of grass and perennial weeds that require removal. However, if the garden has recently gone through a summer harvest, there may be remains such as older or withering plants, dead leaves, and new weeds.
To get ready for the next growing season, make sure that no remaining debris is present from previous plant growing seasons, cluttering the garden area. It will become more difficult to clear once the snow falls, so it is best to start early.
Remove Dead Vegetation
Nonproductive plants or plants out of season, as well as lingering leaves, can be removed from the garden and placed in a compost pile for later use. However, if the plants and their organic matter show evidence of disease or insects, then dispose of them in the trash.
Remove Invasive Weeds
An easy and effective way to eliminate weeds is mulching. Adding mulch on top of weeds can essentially starve them by blocking their access to light. A benefit to this method is that gardeners can simultaneously kill weeds off while developing healthier soil to grow vegetables for the winter.
However, because weeds have an extensive root system that helps them survive extended periods, it is essential to use a very thick layer of mulch to block their sunlight. Gardeners will need to have about four inches of mulch that covers the ground for roughly six to eight weeks for this method to be effective. (This is another reason why it is essential to start preparing for winter early!)
For more stubborn weeds, cover the layer of mulch with a large black plastic or tarp (at least 6 milliliters thick) or a sheet of cardboard that’s weighed down with rocks along the edges of the garden plot. Doing so will help kill any existing weeds in the garden by subduing their sprouts with the additional weight and eliminating all sources of light from getting through.
Alternatively, the mulch can be covered with organic materials such as newspapers, leaves, wood chips, or straw lightly covered in water to keep the contents from blowing away. However, a tarp or black plastic sheet is easier to remove from the surface of the mulch and will leave room to begin planting through the mulch to reach the soil below.
Step 2: Test and prepare the soil
Having healthy garden soil is one of the most important parts of raising healthy vegetables. For that reason, it is crucial to regularly test its pH and nutrient levels before planting to ensure it is suitable for winter vegetable growth.
A pH test* can help gardeners determine if a garden’s soil is unfit or too unhealthy to grow a winter vegetable garden. It is recommended to begin testing the soil’s pH levels at least six months before planting winter vegetables (and routinely after). This will allow enough time to adjust its pH level as needed. (University of New Hampshire)
Most vegetables will grow best in soil that has a pH between 6.5 to 6.8. If the ground has a lower pH (acidic) reading, some materials can be added to its surface to help raise and maintain a higher pH. The most common substance used for this purpose is lime.
On the other hand, if pH levels are naturally above 7.0 (alkaline), then a fertilizer with micronutrients may be recommended. Calcium and magnesium are different substances used to help maintain a pH level in soil, rather than raise or lower it.
The amount of each substance needed to increase or decrease pH levels ranges from each case. Refer to a reliable soil testing facility or laboratory for the most accurate numbers.
*Note: pH testers and kits can be easy to use and are often available at an affordable cost from hardware stores or Amazon for gardeners to use at their disposal. Often, these home pH testers also help gardeners measure soil moisture and sunlight intensity as well, which is especially useful for new gardeners. However, gardeners can also opt to send soil samples to a local laboratory for more accurate results. More information about laboratory soil testing can be found from Gardener Scott’s YouTube video.
Organic fertilizer is not necessary if a vegetable garden contains natural materials like compost. However, depending on the location and region of the garden, it may be needed as an additional nutrient booster.
Testing the pH of the soil will help determine how much fertilization is needed to ensure the ground has enough nutrients to support vegetable plants. Organic vegetable gardens usually need 60 pounds per square feet of 4-3-3 or similar organic blended fertilizer. (Source: University of New Hampshire)
When adding the fertilizer, mix half of the total amount into the top few inches of soil before planting. The other half should be used part-way into the growing season, placed near the plants and slightly mixed into the soil surface.
Step 3: Replenish mulch and compost
Mulch serves as a form of insulation for most plants, so it must be added over bare soil before the winter season to protect against the elements. Also, mulching will become more imperative in eliminating stubborn perennial weeds before planting and during the growing season.
Mulch can consist of a variety of organic materials, including:
- Lawn clippings
- Pine needles
- Wood chips
Adding Mulch to the Garden
Make sure there is at least a three-inch layer of mulched leaves, compost, or straw over the vegetable garden site before planting.
Regenerating Compost Pile
Compost can help maintain the health of the garden’s soil, which is critical to successful plant growth; make sure that any compost piles are properly managed before and during the winter season.
When adding compost to the garden, spread between 25 to 100 pounds for every 100 square feet of garden space; this should take place at least three weeks before planting (however, organic matter can be added during planting time). (Source: University of Florida) Doing so will not only improve the soil’s health, but it will also reduce the loss of healthy, valuable topsoil.
Step 4: Plant soil-friendly cover crops
Cover crops are mostly grasses and other types of plants—such as legumes—that are used to improve the condition of a garden’s soil. Cover crops can:
- Add nutrients and restore fertility
- Prevent soil erosion and topsoil loss
- Break up soil compaction
- Naturally block weeds
- Provide organic matter
Cover crops are best planted during the late summer or early fall after harvest, ideally between early August and mid-September. This is because cover crops typically require four weeks to root, and will have an increased chance of growing before the first fall frost. (Source: Farmer’s Almanac)
Choosing a Cover Crop
Many types of cover crops can be used to prepare the soil for winter planting, including:
- Cereal Rye
- Crimson Clover
- Austrian Winter Pea
(Source: University of Florida)
However, oats are typically the most reliable cover crop to use. They are very inexpensive compared to other cover crop options and can be easily purchased from a local feed store. In addition, oats will naturally die when winter comes, creating a thin layer of natural mulch that can be used for spring planting.
Planting Cover Crops
When planting the cover crop, spread roughly two and a half to three pounds of seed for every 1,000 square feet of fresh soil and mulch. Use a rake to gently incorporate the seeds into the ground, being careful not to disturb the soil too much, if possible.
Step 5: Assess the previous winter growing season and plan accordingly
Knowing what the winter weather conditions were like and how plants responded to them in previous years will be an excellent benchmark to refer to when preparing for this year. This information—in addition to having a good knowledge of temperatures at which cold-season vegetables can thrive—will also help in preparing for winter gardens.
Winter & Regional Temperatures
Assess the average low and high temperatures in the area from the previous year, in addition to the percentage of snow coverage. A farmer’s almanac is often a wonderful resource that can help gardeners review past weather occurrences and predict weather conditions for future growing seasons.
Also, recognize the region’s USDA hardiness zone to determine which plants are more likely to survive in that area’s climate.
From there, take note of which vegetables are likely to thrive in the same conditions for the next year. The following table shows a list of soil temperatures required to grow certain vegetables:
Soil Temperature Conditions for Vegetable Seed Germination
|Min Soil Temp (°F)||Best Soil Temp (°F)|
|Cool Weather Crops|
|Warm Weather Crops|
The table above is copied from another great article we have written – What Temperature Do Seeds Germinate?
The Old Farmer’s Almanac also has resources that can help gardeners determine the ideal growing conditions for vegetables that are not mentioned in the above chart.
Choosing Vegetables to Plant for Winter
Quite a variety of vegetable plants are cold-hardy, meaning that they can cope well with winter weather conditions better than other types of plants. These plants typically consist of root crops or leafy greens, since they can survive with less sunlight (as little as six hours per day) compared to other types of vegetables (which need as many as eight to ten hours of sunshine per day). (Source: North Carolina State University)
Examples of cool-season vegetables that have been proven to grow fairly well in the winter include:
- Onions and Shallots
- Brussel Sprouts
- Leafy Greens
- Bok Choy
(Source: Marin Master Gardeners, UCANR)
This video from MIGardener reviews some of the most recommended vegetables to grow during the winter season.
Planting the Winter Vegetable Garden
After the garden has been prepared to grow vegetables, the next step is to begin planting them. (Note, this is done during the warmer months before winter comes.)
Planting Seeds vs. Transplants
Vegetables can either be grown from seeds or small, already developed plants. Both offer their own unique benefits to gardeners.
Seeds offer a more extensive selection of vegetables to choose from compared to transplants. However, they often require more planning and care since they are essentially starting from the very first stage of growth. For example, some vegetable seeds, such as tomatoes, may need to initially be grown inside of a pot indoors so they can reach maturity. However, each vegetable plant is different, so be sure to research the seeds and their varieties carefully before planting.
It is recommended to plant early-maturing seeds every three to four weeks throughout the growing season to ensure a steady supply of vegetables during the harvest periods. Examples of fast-growing seeds include leafy greens and radishes.
When it comes to choosing transplants, make sure to inspect the plant carefully for any signs of insects, browning, spotting or wilting before purchasing.
Before planting transplants in the garden with the other vegetables, gradually get them adjusted to the environment in their pots first. Place them in a shaded area for a few hours a day, making sure to water them regularly. This will help the plants adjust to outdoor conditions if they have been cultivated in a greenhouse setting. After about a week, the plants can be transferred over to the garden.
Add at least one to three inches of organic mulch or compost around the transplant’s base, taking care to avoid the stem. Add staking to taller transplants as needed to keep them upright during the growing season.
Regardless if seeds or transplants are being planted, make sure to plant them close together to create a canopy. This will keep heat entrapped between plants and reduce the risk of frost damage at their roots or stems during winter. All vegetable plants should be planted at least six weeks before the soil is expected to freeze.
Maintaining a Vegetable Garden in Winter
How gardeners maintain their vegetable gardens will affect their ultimate growth and success.
If vegetable plants are adequately watered during the fall, they are less likely to undergo stress and lose plant tissue during the drier winter season. Most plants will store some of the water they receive during the fall as a reserve for winter when water is not as easily accessible.
Most vegetable plants will benefit from at least one inch of water per week during their growing season. (Source: North Carolina State University) New plants should receive plenty of water before the ground starts to freeze.
If uncertainty arises as to whether or not vegetable plants are receiving enough water, use a spade or trowel to dig a small area of the soil up. (Do not dig close to the plant to avoid damaging roots.) If the ground is dry past eight inches down, then it requires more water.
Adding Mulch and Compost
It is essential to routinely add mulch* to the vegetable garden both before and throughout the winter season to keep the plants well protected against the elements.
*Note: Carbon-rich mulches—such as those consisting of straw, wood chips, or sawdust—mixed into the soil will be broken down by the soil’s microbes. This often results in nitrogen-starved crops. To avoid this, continually add mulch to the very top layer of the ground, and avoid mixing any of the mulch into the below soil.
Protecting Plants from the Elements
With winter comes less light and more frost, putting vegetable plants in danger if not protected. The below table (Source: Farmer’s Almanac) lists critical low temperatures for different types of vegetables:
|Critical Low Temperatures for Frost Damage to Vegetables|
|Vegetable||Temperature (degrees Fahrenheit)|
Luckily, many ways allow gardeners to keep vegetable plants safe during the winter. One way gardeners can protect vegetable plants from the winter wind, sleet or snow, is by covering them with old sheets—or a light-weight plastic tarp—right before the sun goes down, and after watering. Drape the materials loosely over the plants to allow air to continue circulating.
But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.2 Thessalonians 3:3
Pest and Disease Management
A variety of natural, non-chemical methods to removing unwanted pests from infesting the vegetable garden during the growing season are available.
- Pick vegetable varieties that have resistance or tolerance to diseases and nematodes common to the region.
- Purchase transplants free of insects and disease symptoms such as brown spots. Avoid investing in a transplant that is already flowering.
- Planting a few annual flowers, flowering herbs, and native perennials alongside vegetables can welcome native pollinators and insects that serve as a natural form of pest protection for the garden.
- Harvest crops as soon as they become ripe. Over-ripe vegetables that stay on the plant often attract insects.
- Remove any unproductive plants from the garden as soon as possible and add to the compost.
- Add organic matter to the top of the soil to reduce nematode populations.
(Source: University of Florida)
Other Tips for a Successful Winter Growing Season
Start preparing the vegetable garden early rather than later. Typically, an ideal time to start getting it ready is in mid to late September, after the last summer harvest.
Check Plant Varieties
It is recommended that gardeners research any new vegetable plant varieties to determine which are the best fit for their specific region and climate.
Choose the Type of Garden Wisely
Gardens come in many shapes and forms, but can primarily be divided into three categories:
Some vegetables are capable of growing in large containers deep enough to support their root systems. These vegetables include:
- Leafy Greens
However, the combination of being potted and growing during the winter season can restrict how successful the plant can grow. Consider vegetable plant options carefully when preparing for a container-based garden.
The soil in raised beds typically heats up more quickly and stays warm longer over the course of the fall and winter, which makes this garden type ideal for gardeners wanting to plant and harvest during the colder seasons. In addition, raised bed gardens allow room to place trellises for vertical gardening with vining vegetables such as cucumbers and beans.
A more traditional type of garden, in-ground gardens are usually larger in area, but easier to manage after the initial planting period. Their structure reduces the likelihood of weeds developing during the growing season.
Tip: For more in-depth information, check out our popular article – Are Raised Garden Beds Better Than In-Ground Garden Beds?
Slope the Garden
Vegetable gardens are more likely to warm up faster during the day if they are angled on a south-facing slope toward the sun. In addition, because cold air is dense, it is more likely to flow away from sloped plants, reducing the risk of frost damage.
Isolate the Garden
The ideal place for a vegetable garden during the winter is anywhere within a cluster of trees or walls. Any trees or walls surrounding the vegetable garden acts as a blanket, prohibiting heat from escaping the soil, and keeping the soil and plants safe from freezing temperatures.
If the garden is located in the middle of a lawn or field, create a narrow, tilled strip along its perimeter. This will create a barrier between the garden space and the rest of the grassy area and will prevent outside weeds from developing roots within it.
Maintain Compost Piles
Compost piles can be created with many natural materials found around the home in addition to previous season’s crops. Some of these materials include:
- Coffee grounds
- Grass clippings
- Fruit and vegetable peelings
When creating or adding to a compost pile, make sure to cover it with straw and a plastic tarp afterward to protect it from the rain. Otherwise, the compost will become anaerobic and soggy.
It takes approximately one full year for a new compost heap to completely decompose its materials and be ready for use in the garden. Because of this, it is essential to plan and start building a compost pile early to avoid delays.
For more information on how we manage our compost piles, check out the following articles we have written: Should a Compost Bin Be Covered? Tips for Containing Compost and When Should I Turn My Compost Pile?
Maintaining Gardening Tools
It is easier to care for a vegetable garden if the tools are appropriately taken care of.
After using gardening tools with soil, be sure to rinse and clean them off afterward. Difficult stains or hard-to-remove dirt can be scrubbed off using wire wool or a wire brush.
Tools with wooden handles can be cleaned and smoothed down with sandpaper or a sanding sponge. In addition, a natural, protective oil—such as teak oil—can be used to polish wooden handles.
Use a metal file on both sides of the tool’s blade. When finished, oil the sharpened edges with a clean cloth and vegetable oil.
Many gardeners use a clean cloth and vegetable oil to oil metal tools—such as digging tools and hoes— to prevent rust.
To prevent freeze damage in garden hoses, run the tube over a railing or fence to remove any lingering water before rolling it up and putting it away. When storing it, keep it in a bucket inside the tool shed or garage.
The winter season can prove to be a difficult time of year for growing vegetable plants. However, with the right preparation and care—and by following the above tips—gardeners can successfully grow and harvest them with ease.
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