Putting your garden to bed for the winter

Fall is here, and although we hate to admit it the rains are on the way. As you enjoy those final summer veggies, it’s time start thinking about getting your garden ready for the winter.

Winterize any part of your garden that you aren’t using to grow winter food crops. Proper preparation not only protects beds from rain and weeds, but also enriches the soil for next season’s plantings. Here are two winterization techniques we like at Growing Gardens.

Be sure to record the layout of your garden first.  This will make planning next season’s crop rotations much easier!

These beds are sheet mulched and ready for rain

Cover Cropping:
Cover crops are grown to feed the soil, rather then people. They’re also called plant fertilizers or green manures. A good cover crop will protect the soil from erosion and compaction and crowds out weeds all winter long. In the spring, you can turn it in or compost it to provide nitrogen and and organic matter for the season’s veggies. Some of the best cover crops for our region are fava beans, crimson clover, winter rye and hairy vetch.

Plant cover crops in September or October. Sprinkle the seeds evenly over the soil and around any summer plants, then gently push them in with your fingers. Don’t water—the seeds will sprout on their own 2-3 weeks after the rains begin.

Remove the cover crop in the spring, as it begins to flower. By not letting the it go to seed, you insure that more nutrients end up in the soil and that the cover crop doesn’t become a weed.  You have two options for removing your cover crop. Roughly chop the cover crop up with a shovel and gently turn the pieces under the soil about three weeks before you begin planting in the spring. Or you can chop the plants off at ground level, leave the roots in the soil and add the tops to your compost pile.  You can then plant right away.

Sheet Mulching:
Sheet mulching uses layers of organic matter to build a compost pile on top of your beds. Mulch your beds once all your plants have stopped producing.  The mulch will act as a protective layer over the soil and choke out weeds.  Plus by the spring, the sheet mulch will have broken down into rich soil! You can also use sheet mulching to build new garden beds for the spring.

Volunteers sheet mulching a bed

  1. Mow or cut any tall weeds or plants. Leave them where they are on the ground.
  2. Lay down a ¼ to 1 inch layer of manure or compost on top of the ground then gently water.
  3. Cover the area with cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper. This will kill all weeds and grass underneath. Weeds can grow through openings so be sure to cover any gaps. Water the cardboard thoroughly.
  4. Lay down another layer of compost or manure. Water the area.
  5. Now make several layers of whatever sheet mulching materials you have available from the list below. Try to alternate carbon-rich, “brown” materials and nitrogen-rich, “green” materials. Continue to layer until you have a bed 1-2 ft. tall, and be sure to water between each layer

Here are some sheet mulching materials we’ve used. Remember that there isn’t just one correct way to sheet mulch. Experiment with what is available to you:

Newspaper, cardboard, wood ash, crushed egg shells or shellfish shells
“Brown” or carbon-rich materials: straw (not hay), dry leaves, corn stalks
“Green” or nitrogen-rich materials: composted manure, compost, chopped cover crops, green leaves, grass clippings

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