For many people, gardening is a spring and summer project. Cooler months tend to turn our attention elsewhere and we reluctantly allow our beloved plots and flower beds to sleep until the ground warms up again. However, there is still plenty to be done outdoors in the fall and winter to continue growing food and to prepare for the next growing season. Here is a brief list of tips to get your gardening-fix even after the cold weather sets in.
1. Know Your Zone
Before beginning any cold-season gardening projects, you need to know the approximate depth of the frost line and date of first expected killing frost for your zone. If you aren’t sure which one you’re located in, here is an excellent resource for pinpointing worldwide hardiness zones.
2. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Mulch isn’t just for blocking weeds and making your garden look nice. It also helps to keep the soil warm and moist. While it certainly isn’t enough to prevent annuals from dying or keep perennials from going dormant, decomposing organic matter creates heat. A healthy layer of mulch can go a long way toward protecting roots and bulbs from encroaching frost. Also, fall and winter tend to be very dry seasons compared to spring and summer. Bare, unprotected soil loses water much faster during the cold months than it does when the weather is warm. Also, a thick blanket of mulch offers better protection for beneficial wildlife that may be over-wintering beneath the soil in your garden.
3. Bulb Maintenance
What you do with your bulbs at the beginning of fall depends on your hardiness zone and the coinciding depth of the frost line in your locale. For colder climates, you’ll want to dig up and store bulbs in a cool, dark location until danger of frost has passed. If it’s safe to leave them in the ground through the winter, go ahead and dig up, separate, and replant any existing bulbs that need maintenance. You can also plant new bulbs once the weather cools down. Just make sure they have good conditions and enough time to establish roots before the temperature drops too low. Incorporate bone meal or another low-nitrogen fertilizer into the soil at the bottom of planting holes to really jump-start root growth.
4. Extend Your Growing Season
If you have your heart set on growing fresh produce all year long but you just can’t afford that dreamy greenhouse you’ve always wanted, build some tunnels instead. Low tunnels may be erected over rows to direct-sow seeds up to three weeks early in the garden. They may also be used to keep growing your summer veggies a few weeks past the onset of cold weather. High tunnels are another a great option for winter harvest vegetables, though they take a bit more work to build. For more info, check out this great how-to by HighTunnels.org.
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5. Cold-season Veggies
A good variety of crops actually grow best during the cooler months. If you aren’t quite ready to give up your fresh produce come fall, try planting cold-season veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, and Brussels sprouts. Collards, mustard greens, spinach, kale, mâche, and many kinds of lettuce also prefer cooler temperatures. Root veggies like turnips, beets, radishes, rutabagas, and baby carrots are more options for the cold-weather garden. Check out this article for more information on cold-weather vegetable gardening. Also, for a complete listing of cold-tolerant veggies, check out these fall and winter planting options from the Burpee Seed company. Remember to check your zone!
Further Reading: 21 Plants For The Fall Garden For Food & Beauty
6. Autumn Tilling
If you live in a location with mild winters, you may want to till organic matter like dying weeds and yard debris under the soil in the fall and let the elements turn it into natural compost for you over the winter. Again, this advice isn’t for everyone. If your hardiness zone tends to have bitter winters, it is usually a good idea to have a short stubble of dormant grasses and weeds on the surface of your soil to help protect what lies beneath from freezing. Also, if your garden is on a slope, you’ll probably want to leave the weeds and grasses intact to prevent erosion.
In larger gardens, consider tilling only about three out of every four rows. This leaves a bit of cover for beneficial garden wildlife to shelter from the cold.
Remember, ideal tilling conditions are when the soil is just soft enough to break apart into clumps in your hand. Gluey mud or dirt that falls apart too quickly usually indicate that it is not the best time for tilling.
7. Fabric Coverings
It is a fairly common practice to cover perennials with bags or other upside-down containers during the coldest days of winter. While this may protect your plants from damaging frost, covering them incorrectly can actually do more harm than good. If covering is something that you plan to do, go with cloth in lieu of other materials. Avoid plastic at all costs, as well as any other coverings that could potentially trap excessive moisture around the plant. Or if you absolutely must go with plastic coverings, make certain that the walls of your makeshift shelter don’t come into contact with any leaves, branches, or stems as freezing condensation can cause severe damage to plants.
8. Protect Young Trees & Shrubs
If you know that you’re in for some harsh winter weather, you may also want to bundle up any tender saplings and young shrubs living in your garden. Natural materials like burlap are ideal for protecting large plants from frost. Just make sure to remove the material as soon as the temperature rises back above freezing. Otherwise you may accidentally force your trees and shrubs out of dormancy in the middle of winter.
9. Winter Weed Control
The coldest months of the year can be the perfect time to start eliminating weeds from your garden plots and flower beds. If you have a warm spell, weed seeds will be the first to germinate. As soon as you see weed sprouts appear, pull them up. Or if the ground is soft enough you can also till then under to get a head start on your garden maintenance.
Further Reading: 8 Natural Ways To Kill Garden Weeds
With all this work to keep you busy through the cold-weather months, spring will be knocking on your door before you know it!