It came early this year. Cool, damp weather, chilly nights, blazing red and orange foliage, the need to light the wood stove and sip on hot cocoa while the wind howls outside.... There is no doubt now, with November steadily approaching, that winter is coming.
As easy as it is to forget about the garden this time of year, there are a few things you can do to help overwinter your garden and make life a bit easier come spring. Many of you may have already done these things, but if you haven't, it's not too late!
- Remove larger vegetable stalks and stems, diseased leafy material, and decaying vegetables. Diseased plant material should be either burned or put in a separate "dirty" compost pile- adding this material back to the garden might infect next year's crop. Remove any weeds that have gone to seed (try to keep them out of the compost pile, too).
- Till under remaining plant material. This will add some organic matter to the soil, and it will have months to slowly decay, providing spring nutrients.
- Cover garden with a mulch. If you live in a warmer climate, there may still be time to plant a green manure cover crop, such as annual rye grass or clover, which can then be turned under in the spring. If it's too late for a cover crop, consider adding manure and a mulch to your garden to protect and enrich your soil over the winter. Strong winds can cause serious erosion over bare gardens, and a top layer of straw, shredded leaves, or some other mulch can help tremendously.
- Did you plant garlic? Even if autumn snuck up on you, it's not too late! Our garlic is just going in (though in truth, it should have gone in a few weeks ago!). Garlic is easy to grow, requires little maintenance, and provides early spring garlic scapes- the zesty green tendrils that are a great addition to any dish. Simply till up your rows, and plant cloves 1-2 inches below the surface, pointy end facing up. Cover loosely with soil, and then cover your rows with a layer of straw mulch about 2 inches thick. And voila! You will be so grateful you did come next summer!
- Remove any remaining stakes from the garden (we used a ton of t-posts for tomato and pepper support and for pea trellises). If any of your plants developed diseases (late blight, leaf spot, etc), then mix up a weak bleach dilution and spray the plant supports thoroughly to kill any residue. Doing this now will save you a ton of work come spring, and will prevent diseases from overwintering amongst your tools.
- If you didn't do so in early summer, make a map of your garden and where you planted all your vegetables, so that you can start planning next summer's garden, taking proper plant rotation into consideration.
- Move any small trees or shrubs that you've been intending to replant. Now would also be a good time to put in blueberry bushes or other fruit tress and bushes.
- Water any perennial plants. They won't be getting much moisture from here on out, and will need it to store up energy for the winter.
- Rake up fallen leaves and put in a compost pile. If you are planting potatoes next summer, here is a great trick: potatoes grow well in composted leaves. We have chosen a new spot this year, just outside of the main garden, where we will grow our potatoes. We are piling the leaves there now, to smother and kill the grass beneath. Come spring, we will simply plant the potatoes in the giant leaf pile, about a foot or so beneath the surface. The beauty of this method is that not only do the leaves' acidity create excellent growing conditions for the potatoes, but they will also be incredibly easy to dig up (remember "swimming" through leaf piles when you were a kid?). It's so easy, it's almost like cheating!
- Finally, order some great winter reading for the slow winter nights spent indoors. For beginners, some great books are Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and Burpee : The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener : A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically. For more advanced organic gardeners, Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower is wonderful.