Monday, September 29, 2014

Getting Gardens Ready for Winter

The last of the tomatoes are slowly ripening and you’re hoping we don’t get a frost in the next few days. There’s still some lettuce and spinach in the corner, and of course the kale and broccoli await harvesting. Still, you know that the growing season is coming to an end.
Late-season lettuce

Maybe you’ve already begun to prepare your garden for the cold days now that the autumnal equinox is past. Good for you! However, if you are wondering what to do with your green acre, there are several great resources on the Web to help you get it ready for the winter and help ensure a healthy garden for next year. Those resources are listed at the end of this article, but for now here are some general thoughts to bear in mind.



Is this your first year or your forty-first year putting in a garden? However long you’ve been doing this, give yourself a pat on the back for starting a garden in the first place and then for tending it carefully through the season. Think back on the moments of excitement, wonder, satisfaction, and, yes, frustration. Remember the strawberries in June and tomatoes in August. Remember the black swallowtail that paused long enough for you to take its picture. Remember the toad that strayed out onto the driveway and that you carefully prodded back to safe territory.
Time spent gardening is time spent renewing the spirit with a sense of place, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of humanity’s connection with other life on this fragile planet. Give yourself a few more moments this fall to let that renewal take effect.
Remember too that having a vegetable garden makes you part of the local and sustainable food movement that Claudia described in the August 29 City Green Blog Post.



When used to prepare a garden for the winter, mulch serves purposes that differ from its use in the spring and summer. In spring and summer we use mulch to help the soil retain moisture and as a part of a weed-mitigation strategy. It can also add to the visual appeal of a garden when it is used to cover large patches of bare soil.
When added to a garden in the fall, mulch can help the soil retain moisture, but the primary purpose for adding mulch is to protect the plants from the effects of the cold. How that works, though, is actually the opposite of what we might think. Mulch doesn’t prevent the ground from freezing. It actually helps keep frozen ground frozen by insulating against a warm spell in the dead of winter. A premature thaw can result in premature plant growth and subsequent die-off when temperatures drop again, and the shifting of the ground in a freeze-thaw-freeze cycle can tear fragile roots.
Raspberry canes in the snow. Snow insulates and adds nitrogen to the soil.
Regardless of when it’s applied, organic mulch (that is, mulch that’s strictly plant matter and not plastic or other manufactured fabric) also adds valuable nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Leaves, grass clippings, straw or hay, wood chips or bark, compost, evergreen needles, and even paper can serve as mulch. Be careful when using a mulch that takes up nitrogen as it decomposes, such as wood chips. Plants need that nitrogen to remain healthy.



This section is about compost, but I needed to maintain the alliteration of the headings in the article and “composting” didn’t meet that need. That said, have you ever seen what a cantaloupe rind looks like after a week or so in the compost bin? Pretty putrid.
The process that we might call putrefaction is actually the process by which worms, centipedes and other bugs, and eventually microorganisms break down the cantaloupe rind into the stuff that will nourish our plants next spring and summer.
Got compost? The fall is a good time to incorporate it into your garden soil either by using it as mulch or by tilling it into the soil. No compost? Consider adding it to your planning notes for next year (see below).



Grassy or leguminous crops planted in the fall, while they might not produce edible fruit, can yield benefits for next year’s garden. The Organic Gardening article cited below lists a number of cover crops that you might plant and the potential benefits of each.
You may need to take the climate zone into account when choosing a cover crop. Much of the readership of this blog will live in climate zone 6a (higher elevations north and west of Clifton) or zone 6b (lower Passaic County and areas east and south).



What was the component of the garden that you wish you had more of this year? Did you plant a few bush beans, only to find that you couldn’t pick enough at any one time for a meal’s worth?
What was the part of the garden that was less than successful? Did you plant all your zucchini at once only to lose all of the vines to the squash vine borer at once as well? Was the yield in your sweet-corn patch worth the resources you devoted to it?
Before the labors of raking leaves, shoveling snow, and just keeping warm turn our gardening memories hazy, make some notes about what you want to do differently next year. Spend some time at the local public library or on the Web browsing information about how to make your gardening experience even more satisfying.
Talk with other gardeners. What worked for them? How did they avoid the troubles that you encountered?
            Make your plans for next year’s garden now, before the catalogs arrive in January or February and their photos of supernaturally large specimens tempt you to dream a garden that you won’t be able to create in reality.



Perennials benefit from being pruned or cut back after the growing season. The Old Farmer’s Almanac article cited below (courtesy of Farmer Todd) has some specific guidelines for pruning garden perennials.



City Green’s Resources Page:
Mother Earth News:
The Old Farmer’s Almanac:
Organic Gardening on mulch:

by Pat Walsh
Pat Walsh volunteers at City Green along with his wife, Jody. He enjoys gardening, hiking, and writing and is a member of the Bloomfield Civic Band.