When the temperatures drop and the days grow short, we know the growing days of the spring and summer season are over. While there are some cold weather vegetables that we can continue to cultivate, most of us are looking to go dormant for the winter.
A little prep work can help ensure that your garden is ready to roll when it comes time for the spring planting. So here are the steps you should take now to keep the vegetable beds and flower pots ready for the next season’s bounty.
When should you start prepping your garden for winter?
When to get started depends entirely on where you live! Here in Central Texas, we’re just now getting into the “winterization” of our garden beds. But we don’t expect to see our first freeze until mid-December at the earliest.
Search for your local area’s dates of first freeze. Get the garden ship-shape at least a week or two in advance. Here’s how to do it.
1. Remove the dead plants
While it’s tempting to just leave the dead plants to wither away over the winter, it’s a better idea to remove them entirely. Leaving that dead matter encourages pests to stick around through the winter, and can cause you a real headache come spring.
Plus, if you have any kind of mold or blight on your old flora, it can contaminate your new growth next year. Better to just do away with the old every fall, and start fresh.
If your old plant matter doesn’t show any signs of disease, you can throw them into your compost pile, along with shredded leaves. You can also sprinkle leaf mold (partially decomposed leaves) around your perennials as a natural mulch.
2. Test (and fix) your garden soil
Pre-winter is the best time to test and add any necessary amendments to your garden soil. To figure out what your soil needs, send a soil sample off to your state’s cooperative extension service. You can find a list of all the state’s extension offices here.
Once you get your results back, you can decide what to do next. Acidic soil will need a little neutralization, often with a limestone additive. If your soil is alkaline, adding compost or other organic matter (like manure or mulch) could be the fix you need.
Soil amendments take a little time to work their magic, which is why the winter season is a great time to do this.
3. Care for your perennials
To keep your perennials coming back year after year, they need a little special care. To start, keep watering them until they go dormant. This late watering will keep their roots healthy as long as possible.
This is also a good time to divide your spring-flowering perennials, if they need it.
After they begin to lose their leaves and die back, you can cut them back to 6-8″ above the ground. Next…
4. Add compost and mulch
Whether store bought or homemade, organic compost will reintroduce much-needed nutrients into the soil to prepare for the next growing season.
Top the compost with a light layer of straw or mulch to prevent weeds from taking root over the winter. It will also keep those perennial roots insulated against the cold as they lie dormant.
5. Prepare for freezes
It’s important to make sure you’re well-prepared for the inevitable winter freezes. Even in the south, we get at least a few nights of frost every year. If you don’t plan ahead, you may not have what you need to protect the plants when the chill comes.
Protect your watering system
If you have an irrigation system, make sure it’s drained and turned off in advance of the first frost. If the weather freezes while the system holds water, it could suffer from expensive damage.
Hoses can crack in freezing temperatures. And if they still hold water, they can actually encourage freezing of your internal pipes. That’s an expensive, messy fix! To prevent it, just make sure to remove any hoses or soakers from the spigot, and store them in garage until the spring.
Stock up on sheets or garden tarps
If you have plants that will need protection from frost over the winter, make sure you have enough sheets or tarps to cover them with. In warmer climates, sheets are usually enough, as our frosts are brief. But if you expect hard freezes, you may need to wrap plastic over the sheets to keep the heat in. You can also tuck jugs of warm water under the coverings for extra warmth.
Gently wrap your plants with the covers overnight, all the way down to the root stem. Remove the covers during the day, to prevent condensation from building up under the covering.
6. Plan your spring garden
The winter months are a great time to plan expansions and upgrades for your garden. You can build new raised vegetable beds or flower patches when your time is free of weeding and watering. Lay some tarp down in the space that you plan to plant, so the weeds or grass will die back in time for the spring planting.
Brainstorm some ways you can get the kids involved in your garden, as well. Maybe next year, they can have their own child-sized garden beds full of their favorite veggies.
And while you’re planning, visit the garden center — fall and winter often see sales on bagged garden soil and gardening tools.
Once your winter prep is done, you can pour yourself a hot drink and start imagining the bountiful spring flowers that you’ll enjoy in just a few months!