5 Ways to Prep Your Garden For Winter

Garden

The warm days of summer might very well be behind us for now, but there are still plenty of things that need to be done in the garden. And if you’re like me, this is good news!

I love the fall months for their rich change in color, crisp evenings and moderately warm afternoons. But I know that fall leads to winter, and winters in Iowa tend to be long and bitter. This year, winter has come early, and I’m already aching for warm soil, dirty hands and beds of brilliant green. But there is a rhythm to this life. Life sheds its beauty in fall, is stripped to its core in winter in order to be reborn in spring.

So as we come to the end of the gardening season, we look to the coming months of cold and barren fields not only with trepidation but also with hope. On the other end of winter, somewhere between April and May, there is life! A new planting season!

But it doesn’t come without a little preparation. Our gardens are a living organism, and in order to get the most out of our spring we need to prep our fields and our plots to withstand the cold months.

Here are 5 ways you can prep your garden for winter.

 

Pull the brown. Now is the time to walk your beds and pull the leftover tomato vines, pepper stalks, and whatever else is left of your summer crops. Throw these in your compost pile, unless you suspect disease. If you wrestled with blight, verticillim wilt, downy mildew or club root, take these plant remains to the burn pile instead so you don’t infect your compost.

Cleaning your beds of spent plants will allow you to mend the soil and will help prevent bugs like the squash beetle from overwintering in your garden.

Lightly till your beds. If you have a small garden, you can do this with a hoe or rake. We use a walk behind tiller to open up the beds in our 3 acre marketgarden. The trick here is to not go too deep, where you’ll disturb the living microorganisms that are hard at work building your soil. A couple of inches is enough to expose any pests that might be planning on napping in your garden.

Test your soil. A healthy garden crop starts with healthy soil. Fall is the best time to test your soil as it will allow time for amendments like lime to breakdown before spring. Gardens big or small will benefit from testing soil at least once every 2 years. We test every year, pulling soil from each garden plot and amending as necessary, based on our crop rotation.

Taking soil samples is easy. There are plenty of home test methods available. Or you can simply pull a spade of soil from your garden (again, we take one from each plot), put into a Ziploc bag and take to the lab. Check with your local extension office for the location of a lab near you. It will usually only take a couple of days before you get your results back.

Cover your soil. Here’s a rule of thumb everyone should remember: never leave your soil exposed over winter. Leaving your soil exposed to the elements will result in erosion of your precious top soil (especially if your winters are windy like they are here in Iowa) and nutrients. So what do you do?

If you want to experiment with green manure, you might consider planting a winter cover crop like annual Rye. This will stand up to most winter temperatures and will provide an excellent source of organic matter for your soil. Make sure that you have a way to cut and till the rye, otherwise it will continue to grow through spring. You’ll also want to make sure that you till rye in as early as possible in spring, as it has a allelopathic tendencies and could tie up nutrients in your soil that may prevent seeds from germinating if not broken down.

Clover is another option to use as a cover crop. Till this in as early as your soil can be worked in spring and this will provide an excellent source of nitrogen for your new crops. Or leave in your garden paths to prevent weeds from growing.

If you don’t want to use a cover crop, you can cover your garden beds with mulched leaves or straw. Leaf mold provides a great snack for microorganisms in your soil, and both will break down to add a rich source of humus. Or you can simply use plastic. If you struggle with weeds, covering your beds with black plastic after you lightly till is a good way to force any seeds that may have come to the surface to germinate and die from lack of sunlight.

Whichever method you choose to try, covering your soil for winter is a best practice every gardener should be using.

Protect your perennials. You’ll want to protect any plants you hope to come back in spring. Cover your strawberries with hay. Prune any brown raspberry canes to soil level, but don’t prune the green ones; cover any canes that haven’t experienced winter yet with straw or mulch.

Prune your roses and heavily mulch with compost around their root base. Do the same for any flowering shrubs you may have.

Split bulbs and compost heavily for a welcome sea of color in the spring or summer months.

Tackle those chores. Fall is a great time to take on those chores that might save you time next spring. Cut any new stakes you think you’ll need for next year’s tomatoes. Move the pea or bean trellis and string for next year’s crop. Build those raised beds you’ve been thinking about. Maybe you’ve been longing for a better way to suppress weeds along your garden paths. Now is a great time to lay landscaping fabric and to spread wood chips. Clean your tools and put them away for next year.

Take a few minutes to sit down and plan out what you want your garden to look like next year. Make a list of any chores that need to done to accomplish this plan, and then work in whatever you can this fall so you can spend most of your time next spring planting and building your soil.

 

Now it’s your turn. What do you do to prepare your garden for winter?

5 Ways

Just a Little Update

Well, spring arrived here in Iowa…and then it quickly slipped back into winter. The last couple days temps have plummeted back down to the high thirties. It was seventy-five last weekend, just to give you perspective. And while the rain is keeping us out of the fields, it is a necessary blessing. The radish, carrot and spinach seeds we planted last week have all sprouted, and our broccoli, kale and lettuce are enjoying the cooler weather (although not really the steady wind).

The rain has also given us the opportunity to get caught up on a few things. We’ve been seeding inside the house and repotting transplants like crazy the last couple days. We’ve fallen a bit behind on those things and its good to get that going again. I’ve also gone virtually silent on the blog for the past month, so I wanted to take this chance to catch you up on what we’ve been up to.

Garden21

In March we started planting seedlings inside under lights. To see how we do that click here We’ve started around 300 tomato plants, 100 pepper plants, broccoli, melons and a few flower varieties. We have more tomatoes to seed and a few other things that will transplant better rather than direct seeding in the ground. This has been a new adventure for us, as we’ve never really started seeds indoors before. Our basement has been converted into a makeshift grow room! But its been fun, and we’ve learned so much that we will take into next season when hopefully we will be able to add a greenhouse to expand our seeding efforts.

What will we do with all of our transplants? We’ll plant many of them in the market garden, but we also plan to sell some of these at the first couple farmer’s markets of the year.

Garden12

In March we also began raising a flock of 15 chickens. These girls (and a few unexpected roos) brooded in our front room until they were big enough to go outside. And just a couple of weeks ago they all moved into their new coop. FYI, it smells a wee bit better in the house now, thank you very much.

Garden19Garden14Garden13

They’ve made the transition without any problems, and they love the new space to roam around. Although it took some coaching from “mom and dad” to teach them how to go in and out of the hen house. I used to think that I would never have chickens. I’ve taken care of other people’s chickens before, and it kind of turned me off on the idea. But there is something to raising our own that has changed my mind. And I can’t wait for those fresh farm eggs every morning!

Garden16

We’ve broken ground on the 3 acre market garden. This plot of land had been used for soybeans in the year past, but last year was so badly overtaken with weeds that it was hard to imagine how this could ever become a garden. But we mowed, we plowed, and we ran a disc and a harrow over the ground more than a dozen times to get it in shape for making beds.

Our plan is to put in 10 distinct garden plots made of 12 beds each. Each bed is 100 ft long and 20 in wide, with 18 in space between. This will allow for a 10 year rotation between crop types, which will help alleviate disease and aggressive pest issues.

Garden20

We’re adopting a permanent bed model to eliminate compaction of the soil. We’ve tilled each bed this year, partially to help line each one out and to help with weeds, but we hope to move toward a no-till process in the next couple years. Our goal is to build up healthy soil, and limiting how often we disrupt it, or turn it over, will help preserve those beneficial microbes we are trying to nurture that live in top six inches. Iowa has incredible soil to begin with, so we are already starting in a good place.

After each bed is tilled, it gets a healthy application of compost around 3 in thick. Starting next year, we’ll rotate our compost application, giving preference to the heavy feeders like potatoes and tomatoes, while applying every two years to the lighter feeders like leaf crops and legumes. Compost is expensive, and we’ve been bringing it home by the truck load. We have a place locally we can get it, but it would be in our best interest from a cost perspective if we can figure out how to provide the amount we need from our own operation.

Garden17

Part of the 3 acre garden has been reserved for permanent crop. We’re putting in almost 60 raspberry plants this year, and will likely double that next year. We’ve also got around 300 strawberry plants coming and about the same amount of asparagus over the next two weeks. We hope to expand on these depending on the market in our community.

Garden9Garden8Garden7

In addition to laying compost, we’re laying shredded oak chips in the pathways around each garden plot. Hopefully this will aid in weed suppression, while also giving the garden definition. Another expensive resource that I need to work on sourcing cheaper. Any arborists out there who want to donate their wood chips?

Garden10

Part of our overall plan for the farm is to incorporate fruit trees throughout the property. When we bought the house, everything was so overgrown that it will likely take the next couple years to clean it up the way we want. But once we do that there will be plenty of space for small orchard plots around our 12 acres.

So far we’ve added 10 trees. 4 apples, 3 pears and 3 peaches. We’d like to double this yet this spring, with the plan on adding at least another 20 more next year.

Garden18

Garden4

The reason we named our farm 16 Hands was because we have 6 children. Add me and my wife and that’s plenty of helping hands, right? This is a lifestyle that we are hoping will offer our children beneficial skills and experience that will help shape their character as they grow older. Our greatest responsibility in life is to raise healthy, compassionate children who are willing and able to contribute to their community. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by growing up on a farm and sharing in the daily responsibilities.

Garden5

This rain has not only been good for our germinating seed, but look at all the weeds popping up in the field! We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I’ll show you how we plan to handle these weeds a little later. But I’m very excited with how this project it turning out. It’s not easy, but I’ve learned that nothing worth having is ever achieved without working for it. And we’re happy to do so.

ColdFrame2ColdFrame10

Apart from the 3 acre market garden, we’ve also started to put in so raised beds across the property for extra growing and research opportunities. Right now these boxes have cold weather crops growing in them, most of them direct seeded and started under the hoop frame I built in the picture above. These are great for protecting young starts and for extending your growing season. To learn how to build your own click here

Garden3Garden2Garden1

When I pause to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish I sometimes get overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy that will be necessary to pull it off. But when I look at all we have already done, I’m encouraged. It doesn’t feel like work when its something you are very passionate about. Are there unknown risks? Of course there are. But the reward is greater than any of those risks. And I’m blessed to have the people I love most at my side working toward the same goal.

It’s been a crazy ride, let me tell you. How did we get here? I’m not even sure anymore. But we’re loving it, and that’s all that matters.

To see how things progress, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And if you’re in the Ames, Iowa area, we’ll see you at the market!