Putting the Garden to Bed: A Step-By-Step Guide to Winterizing Your Vegetable Garden
It might not seem like it, but putting the garden to bed in autumn is just as crucial as prepping the soil for spring planting.
Cold temperatures and the heavy precipitation that the winter season brings can do a number on the soil, which is why it’s vital to “put the garden to bed” this time of year.
Winterizing the garden involves taking specific steps to protect your plants, tools, and equipment from harsh weather conditions while allowing the soil to rest in between growing seasons.
It’s hard work, sure, but doing these few extra chores at the end of the season can spell the difference between success and failure next growing season, so don’t cut corners when it comes to winterizing your garden. Keep reading for specific instructions on what to do to safely put your garden to bed for the winter.
First, identify your hardiness zone
Before you can winterize your garden, you need to identify your area’s average first fall frost. If you’re not sure, you can check what hardiness zone you grow in here.
Hardiness zones are regions that are determined based on the average annual minimum temperature. The United States Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone map divides the United States into different zones, ranging from Zone 1a (the coldest zone) to Zone 13b (the warmest). Each zone represents a 10°F difference in average annual minimum temperature. Find more information about hardiness zones in this article.
Once you know your hardiness zone and when to expect your first frost, you can tailor your winterizing efforts to the specific needs of your garden and continue to protect your plants, soil, and equipment accordingly.
Next, harvest everything you can
Before you start winterizing your garden, you want to harvest what you can before the first frost. When it gets close to your area’s first anticipated frost date, keep a close eye on the forecast and plan to get to the garden for one last big harvest.
Sometimes plants don’t make it all the way to the first frost—late-season pests and diseases like powdery mildew and blight can certainly cut a harvest short by weeks and months. On the other hand, some frost-tolerant plants will keep on producing for several weeks after the first frost. Regardless, it’s never a bad idea to harvest everything you can before the weather turns for the worst.
9 essential winterizing tasks
Once you have a deadline and have harvested what you can from your summer garden, you can move forward with cleanup.
1. Cover plants with frost cloth
If you’re not ready to call it quits on harvesting, you can prolong the growing season by several weeks with frost cloth. Frost cloth (sometimes known by the brand name Reemay) is most often a white fabric made of woven polyester or polypropylene that insulates plants from freezing temperatures and frost.
To use frost cloth, install flexible metal hoops over your garden bed, making sure to leave a few inches between the tops of the plants and the hoops. Once you have the hoops set, drape a piece of frost cloth over the hoops, pull it tight, and pin it down with weights or shovelfuls of dirt.
Read this article for more information about how to use a row cover for season extension.
2. Pull out annuals
The first frost will surely kill cold-sensitive plants, and it’s often easier to remove heat-loving annuals before the frost than to wait until the stems turn brown and slimy. Some growers pull the plants up by the roots, and others cut the plants down at their base, leaving the roots to decompose where they sit. Either way, rotting plant foliage and fruit have got to go.
Leaving dead plant debris in your garden through the winter can potentially harbor diseases and other pathogens that could resurface again in the spring, so don’t dawdle too long with removal. Healthy-looking plants can go straight into your compost pile, but diseased plant matter needs to be disposed of away from your garden. Tomato and potato plants are especially prone to late-season blight, so you might want to throw debris from these plants straight into the dumpster.
3. Drain and pull up irrigation
If you use drip irrigation or overhead sprinklers, winterizing all the pipes and irrigation parts is a must.
First, you’ll need to disassemble and drain any above-ground hoses. Some parts of irritation systems are meant to be permanent—the mainline is thick enough to withstand wintry weather conditions and any pipes that are buried should be fine, but you’ll still want to drain them completely to avoid any water inside freezing and bursting.
Before you pull up your irrigation lines, mark how long the lines are and which bed they go with so that it will be easy to put your irrigation back together for the next growing season.
It’s best to store your irrigation lines inside a greenhouse or garden shed for the winter, but if you need to leave them outside, coil the hoses and cover them with a tarp to minimize critters gnawing on the plastic.
4. Prune and mulch perennials
If you choose perennials that thrive in your hardiness zone, they won’t need too much extra care to survive winter.
Avoid pruning hardwood less than six weeks before frost, as pruning too late in the year can encourage plants to grow tender new growth that freezing temperatures will kill.
Mulching is one of the simplest ways to insulate perennials, and it’s as simple as spreading a thick layer of organic mulch, such as straw or wood chips, around the base of plants. Mulching helps retain moisture and regulate temperature fluctuations, as well as keep opportunistic weed seeds from sprouting up.
Water perennials thoroughly before you put down mulch, and keep an eye on them during the drier days since you’ve pulled up your irrigation lines.
5. Test your soil
Fall is the ideal time to test your garden soil for pH and composition—but don’t sleep on it. Refrain from applying fertilizer within the last six weeks before frost, as the influx of nutrients could encourage plants to generate new growth rather than enter dormancy. If you’re worried that you might have missed the window to amend your soil, hang on to your soil test results and plan to make adjustments in the spring.
6. Sow cover crops
For soil to be at its healthiest, it needs a period of rest. Most plants and animals go dormant in winter, and your garden is no exception.
But rather than let the soil lay bare and lose its structure and nutrition during the harshest months of the year, you can actually improve the soil by planting cover crops that slow erosion and put nutrients back into the soil—no matter how small your garden plot.
Fall is traditionally the time to sow cover crop seed, and most cover crops quickly germinate in the cooler, wetter weather.
Cover crops serve as “green manure” and groundcovers that retain water and nutrients in the soil during the winter months. The right cover crop will also enrich the soil with organic matter and nutrients. You can either disk cover crops back into the soil in springtime or crimp cover crops and let them lay over the beds an organic mulch and compost.
7. Tarp beds with plastic
If you choose not to sow a cover crop, the next best option is to tarp the soil with plastic or landscape fabric.
After you remove any dead plants, cover your garden with a sheet of landscape plastic large enough to cover the whole area. The plastic will hold in water and nutrients through the winter, as well as suppress weed growth. The plastic will also warm the soil underneath it, so you can plant it even earlier in the spring.
Tarping a garden bed helps insulate the soil and the microorganisms in it from extreme cold, giving your garden a jumpstart on the next growing season. It’s a great practice that effectively kills weed seeds without tillage.
8. Clean and store garden tools and supplies
While cleaning and sharpening tools doesn’t necessarily have to happen before winter, it’s a good time for this chore. On rainy, cold, and dark days when you’d rather not be outside, take an hour or two to clean your garden tools and organize seed-starting supplies for the upcoming growing season. Store your tools inside a greenhouse or shed if possible and they’ll last far longer.
9. Reflect and plan ahead
The best time to reflect on the wins and losses of the growing season is when you’re still in it. When you have time before or after your other winterizing garden chores, make a list of all the things that worked and things that didn’t, as well as what changes you would make so that the next growing season will be even better than the last.
By winterizing your garden, you ensure the health and survival of your plants, promote soil health and fertility, and set the stage for a successful growing season in the spring.
It’s the final sprint before winter, but every ounce of effort pays off the following growing season. And despite the hard work, this is also a time to put down the shovel, reflect on the past season, and plan for the next.
And if you notice it’s time to replace any tools while you’re inventorying your garden supplies, shop Seeds ‘N Such Gear first for the best deals on quality garden supplies.
Oh, while you’re at it—you might as well stock up non-GMO seeds for next year and score big savings when you buy in bulk.