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

5 tools to invest in this spring

To do a job properly (and efficiently) you need to have the right tools. I’ve been accumulating several and making a list of others I want or need (or think I need), and thought I’d share some of them here on the blog. Many of these tools will be put to work in our market garden, but they certainly have a place on any scale of growing operation.

Here are 5 tools you might consider investing in this spring:

broadfork1

Broadfork – This is one of the coolest tools I’ve discovered this year. Invented centuries ago in Europe and redesigned with the modern gardener in mind, the broadfork is the perfect way to aerate and provide deep tillage to your garden beds without breaking your back. You can get them with 4, 5 or 7 steel tines that usually are around 12″, and some are reinforced for harder soil types like clay.

The idea behind this tool is simple. When using a tiller, the blades will only loosen up the soil 4-6 inches deep. Below that a hardpan will start to develop, especially after several years of tillage, restricting how deep your roots can grow. Using a broadfork, you’ll be able to break up the hardpan and allow your roots to grow deep and straight, instead of hitting the compacted soil underneath and spreading out. This will allow you to plant more densely, as root systems aren’t competing for space. This is essential when establishing permanent beds like we are this year, or if you’re growing vegetables on a micro scale.

We’re ordering ours from Johnny’s Seed (johnnyseeds.com) but you can find broadforks other places like Valley Oak Tools or Meadow Creek. They’ll run anywhere from $80 to $220, depending on quality.

stirup-hoe

Stirrup Hoe – It may seem like a crude tool, but the stirrup hoe makes the chore of weeding long beds so much simpler. The sharp steel band cuts through shallow roots and plucks those annoying weeds right out of the topsoil. Can a traditional hoe do the same thing? Sure. But the stirrup hoe has an open design that allows you to move through weeds without disrupting the soil as much as a standard hoe will. You’re not taking divots out of your precious bed or pathway. Its got an oscillating head that allows you to push or pull, and you can change out the tempered blades when they are worn.

Stirrup hoes can be found almost anywhere tools are sold. They usually come with a 5″ or 7″ head, and will run anywhere from $25 to $60. Totally worth the investment.

rake

Aluminum Rake – I’ve used various rakes in the garden for years. They usually have a narrow, metal head that isn’t attached to the wooden handle very well. I should also say I’ve had several rakes that have pulled apart over the years due to poor design.

What I like about switching to an aluminum rake like the one in the picture is threefold. Aluminum is much lighter, which will make a huge difference when establishing and maintaining beds on our 3 acre plot year after year. It’s also better designed, meaning the head isn’t going to pull away from the wooden handle under stress as easily as some of the other models I’ve used. Whether dragging rock or filtering tilled soil, this rake will handle any job.  I also like the ability to put the orange row markets on the tines. You’ll see in the picture that these are just plastic tips that slide over the tines, and when dragged across the top of the bed establish a shallow furrow for seed placement.

Quality matters. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $95 on a good aluminum rake.

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Earthway Vegetable Seeder – Even if your beds aren’t 100′ long, having a seeder like the Earthway will make planting this spring easier on the body and more efficient. This seeder is lightweight and easy to use. It opens the furrow, measures seed placement, covers and packs the seed while marking the next row, all in one fluid motion. It’s designed especially with the larger seeds in mind, but should do well with any size. It includes 6 seed plates: corn, peas, beans, carrots, beets and radishes. As an option, you can also include a fertilizer attachment for side dressing.

You can purchase this at Johnnys Seeds for $119.  We’re looking at ordering 2 this year.

seeder2

seeder3

Jang JP Seeder – This model is supposed to be one of the best vegetable seeders on the market today. Boasting precise seed singulation, even when the hopper is low, the Jang JP seems to stand out as a quality option for those with larger gardens who are looking for better seed placement across all vegetable types, from carrot to corn. It has a 1 quart clear plastic hopper that allows the user to monitor seed level, and allows for seed depth adjustment by raising or lower the plow height. Seed rollers are purchased separately but there are a wide option of sizes to choose from. This seeder also comes in a 3-row or 6-row option, and can mount on a 3 point hitch tool bar.

This tool packs a punch! You can buy the single row seeder itself for around $405. Seed rollers range around $20-$30 each. If you’ve got a larger garden and care about precise seed placement quality, this might be an option for you.

Purchasing quality tools is an investment that should have a meaningful return. I think any one of these tools I’ve mention will add value and efficiency to any gardening operation, whether private or market. Do your research and as always, buy from a reputable reseller.

Remember, a good tool makes for a happy gardener!