As the days get shorter and the trees start shedding their leaves, you know that it’s time to prepare your vegetable garden for winter. It’s tempting to shut down your garden after the rush of spring planting and summer harvest. However, there are plenty of good reasons to keep working on your vegetable garden year-round.
Do I need to prepare my vegetable garden for winter? All gardeners should take the time to prepare their vegetable garden for winter. Depending on where you live, this can include switching from summer veggies to a winter crop. In colder climates, this means cleaning out your annual plants and taking steps to prepare your perennials for winter frosts.
There are several steps you should take to winterize your vegetable garden, whether you decide to shut things down or to grow some winter veggies. However, we would like to begin with a couple of definitions. We will also briefly discuss some of the reasons to prepare your garden for winter in the first place.
Annuals vs. Perennials, What’s the Difference
There are a couple of terms you will likely come across when reading articles about gardening. Those terms are annuals and perennials. The National Center for Families Learning defines annuals as “plants with a life cycle that lasts one year.” Annuals are typically grown from seeds or starter plants and die after one growing season. For that reason, they require replanting each year.
On the other hand, perennials are plants that “live for more than two years.” Unlike annuals, the roots of perennials survive winter, and the plants regrow in the springtime. Perennials typically live from three to five years, but some can live for decades, such as trees.
Additionally, the National Gardening Association breaks perennials down into a couple of groupings: woody plants and herbaceous perennials. As the name implies, woody plants include “trees, shrubs, and vines whose above-ground parts persist over the winter.” In the springtime, they resume growth.
Herbaceous perennials include plants that “die back to the ground each fall.” However, their roots survive the winter, and the plants resprout when spring arrives.
Why You Should Prepare Your Vegetable Garden for Winter
Summer is nearing its end, and it is time to start thinking about preparing your vegetable garden for wintertime. Although it’s tempting to let nature take its course, and restart your garden from scratch next spring, there are five main reasons to prepare your vegetable garden for winter.
1. Clearing out Space for Spring Planting
Out with the old and in with the new – in other words, preparing your garden for winter is an excellent way to create space for your spring planting. Much of the work involved with winterizing your garden involves removing old plants and weeds. This process will save you a lot of time in the spring when it’s time to start sowing your summer crop.
2. Protecting Your Perennials
Winterizing your vegetable garden is key to protecting your perennial veggies, so you don’t have to plant them from scratch in the spring. Proper winter prep for your perennials not only saves you time in the spring, but it also saves you money. Although vegetable seed kits are relatively inexpensive, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” as the old saying goes.
3. Preventing Plant Disease and Insect Infestation
Another benefit of preparing your vegetable garden for winter is the fact it helps prevent plant disease and insect infestation in the spring. By clearing out dead and dying plants, you avoid the return of any plant diseases you may have experienced leading up to this year’s harvest. Additionally, removing dead plants and preparing perennials for winter eliminates insect’s food supply and their eggs.
4. Eliminate Tilling
Once recommended by experts, yearly tilling is not necessary if you properly prepare your vegetable garden for winter. The whole point of tilling your garden is to break up the soil for natural plant growth. However, winterizing your garden includes protecting the earth by using plastic covers, compost, or mulch. And this preserves the moistness of the soil, making it easy to sow new vegetables in the spring.
5. Switching Over to Winter Vegetables
There are a variety of veggies you can grow outdoors during winter. Preparing your garden for winter includes clearing out dead and dying perennials, which makes room planting an array of vegetables suitable for colder climates.
Vegetables That Can Survive Winter
While some gardeners are content to let their vegetable garden die back in the winter, there are a variety of vegetables you can grow year-round, depending on your climate. Winter gardening requires knowing which plants to leave and which to clean out for winter.
Several vegetables are intolerant of frost, even a mild one, and you must remove them before the season’s first cold spell. Plants that are intolerant to frost include beans, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, okra, peppers, pumpkins, summer squash, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and yams.
As Horticulture Magazine reported, vegetables with a tolerance for winter are broken down into two categories: semi-hardy and hardy. Semi-hardy veggies can tolerate mild winter temperatures going as low as 30-degrees Fahrenheit. These veggies include “beets, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, celery, collards, green onions, potatoes, Bibb and leaf lettuce, mustard, parsnips, radishes, salsify, spinach, and Swiss chard.”
Hardy vegetables can tolerate winter temperatures as low as about 20-degrees Fahrenheit without getting killed. These vegetables include “cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots, kale, leeks, rutabagas, and turnips.”
10 Ways to Prepare Your Vegetable Garden for Winter
Fall is here, and your annuals are beginning to die back, and your perennials are bursting with color and dropping their leaves. It’s time to start preparing your vegetable garden for winter.
Careful attention to the 10 steps below will save you time and effort in the long run. And you will be pleased next spring when it’s time to kick your garden back into high gear.
1. Clean out Dead or Dying Plants
One of the most important steps to winterizing your vegetable garden is to clean out any dead or dying plants. This process not only cleans out unwanted plant waste from your garden, but it also helps reduce plant disease. Likewise, as the University of Tennessee Cooperative Extension reported, many insect types mature over the winter months feeding on any remaining plant waste. “Removing” plant debris “will reduce pest populations.”
This process may sound complicated, but it’s quite simple. I like to use a traditional bow rake or a fixed tine shrub rake to perform this task efficiently. Unlike leaf rakes, these rakes dig into the soil and pull out the entire plant, roots and all.
Additionally, as discussed above, cleaning out dead or dying annuals creates space for you to plant an assortment of vegetables suitable for winter gardening. That way, you can reap the benefits of having fresh veggies from your garden year-round.
2. Prepare Your Perennials
The next thing to do is prepare all your perennials for wintertime. As the Today Show recently reported, you will want to want to cut most of your perennials down to a height of about six to eight inches. However, it is best to wait until after the first frost. As it turns out, energy from the upper portions of the plants “flows to the root systems where it’s stored for the winter.” Additionally, you are better able to see which plants die back above the surface of the ground.
As we discussed above, some vegetables do quite well at temperatures ranging as low as 20-degrees Fahrenheit. However, you need to be sure to check and see if any leaves are damaged by frost and remove them, particularly any that become slimy.
The Today Show spoke to gardening expert Debbie Allen, author of Garden Notes From Muddy Creek, about this very issue. “Get those slimy leaves out of your garden so diseases and bugs cannot winter there,” Allen warned.
3. Remove Any Weeds
Now it the perfect time to remove any pesky weeks now that you already pulled out any dead or dying plants and cut back your perennials for the winter. Remember how difficult it was performing this task with a garden full of vegetables? Weeding is much faster and easier in autumn than trying to work around your beloved plants during the growing season.
However, be sure you don’t add any weeds to your compost bin as most weeds remain viable even when composted. Remember, completely removing weeds from your garden is the only way to guarantee they won’t sprout in your garden all over again, wreaking havoc on next year’s vegetable crop.
4. Prepare Your Soil for Spring Planting
Autumn or winter is a great time to prepare your soil for spring planting by adding bone meal, compost, and fertilizer. However, there are benefits to performing this task while preparing your garden for winter. For example, you won’t have to wait until your garden dries out from spring showers to begin working the soil.
Additionally, adding nutrients to the soil during the autumn gives them time to start breaking down, enriching your soil long before you begin spring planting. This process also means you have already knocked out much of the back-breaking work typically piled onto the other tasks you must perform along with spring planting.
However, it is important to either cover the soil with a plastic sheet, some mulch, or compost to prevent winter rains and spring runoff from washing away all your additions to the soil. When spring arrives, you can remove the plastic sheet and gently till the soil using a cultivator hoe.
5. Plant Cover Crops
Late summer and early fall are ideal times to plant cover crops such as clover, oats, winter rye, winter wheat, or vetch. As the University of Minnesota Extension explains, cover crops are used to manage soil splash and erosion, and to choke out weeds. Additionally, cover crops add organic material to the soil, and many legumes such as beans, peas, and vetch help increase the soil’s nitrogen levels through a process called nitrogen fixation.
All you have to do is turn over the soil after the first frost with a hoe or a rototiller. This process mixes in the cover crop, adding vital nutrients to your garden’s soil. Best of all, a variety of cordless electric tillers are available on the market these days like this one made by Earthwise.
6. Spread Compost Over Your Garden
Spreading two to about six inches of compost or manure over your vegetable garden is another excellent way to protect and enrich your soil. Compost can be purchased online, or you can make it using organic waste from your kitchen or your garden.
A variety of compost bins are available online for the kitchen countertop or outdoors. Our favorite model is the Elever compost bin, which includes two charcoal filters to help eliminate odors. Not only are odors offensive, but they also attract fruit flies, mice, and other undesirable vermin.
However, make sure you don’t cover your garden with compost or mulch too early. If you set it out too soon, you run the risk of mice and rats moving in for winter warmth. Additionally, they will dine on your perennials at the same time. It is best to wait until the first frost to give the mice time to find another home than your garden.
7. Prep Your Compost for Spring
Late summer or early autumn is the perfect time to start prepping your compost system for next spring’s planting. First of all, your compost from the summer is likely ready to be used. That means you won’t have to purchase compost to cover your vegetable garden during winter. You can protect and enhance your soil without additional cost using your compost.
Completing this process also means you can clear out space in your composter for another batch. And that is particularly useful at this point as you just finished cleaning out the dead and dying remnants from this year’s crop. Likewise, you can add all the leaves you rake up from your yard and add them to your compost heap. That gives you a jump start on next year’s composting needs.
When it comes to composting, we love the high-capacity of the Redmon Green Culture 65-gallon compost bin. When it comes to the kitchen, we like the clean and elegant styling of the Compostizer stainless steel compost bin kit.
8. Replenish Your Mulch
Late summer and early winter are ideal times to replenish your garden’s mulch. Similar to compost or manure, mulch helps reduce soil erosion, helps choke out weeds, and adds organic material to your soil as it breaks down. Additionally, winter mulching helps regulate soil temperature reducing damage to root vegetables otherwise susceptible to harsh winter conditions. Likewise, mulching can protect winter vegetable crops by buffering against hard frosts.
9. Clean, Prep and Store Your Garden Gear
Keeping all your gardening tools maintained can be difficult in the middle of planting, maintaining, and harvesting your crop of vegetables. Late summer or autumn is ideal for taking the time to clean, oil, and sharpen all your gardening gear. You can begin by washing your tools to remove any dirt, dust, or debris.
Then, you can sharpen shovels and hoes using a basic mill file. When it comes to sharpening pruners, a whetstone typically works the best. You will also want to check for any rust and remove it using a wire brush or some sandpaper. WD-40 is also great for removing rust and corrosion on your garden tools.
To complete the job, lightly oil your metallic garden gear using a rag coated with light machine oil. This oil will protect the metal from oxidation and rust and extend your garden tools’ lifespan. Then, you can kick back in the comfort of your home with a gardening book and a cup of tea or hot chocolate.
10. Assess This Year’s Growing Season and Plan for Next Year
The final step to preparing your vegetable garden involved assessing the success of your garden this year. Did all the vegetables you planted perform up to expectation? If not, now is the perfect time to research other varieties that might be more suitable for your region or the particulars of your garden.
On the other hand, if your vegetable crop met or exceeded your goals, you might consider extending the size of your garden. Additionally, you might try adding some new veggies or varieties that ripen earlier in the season or later so you can extend the production time of your garden.
If you would like to watch an informative discussion regarding preparing your vegetable garden for winter, you can check out this video.
There are numerous benefits to preparing your vegetable garden for winter. Following our 10-step guide will not only help your springtime gardening tasks more manageable, but they can also help you avoid common gardening problems like plant disease and insect infestations. As the old saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.” Until we meet again, happy gardening, and may your harvest be bountiful.