Heirloom Gardener Blogs > Eat Your Garden

Don't Head Into Winter Without Putting Your Garden to Bed

Do you like to weed? No, I don’t either! But by leaving weeds in your garden now, you are creating even bigger problems for yourself next year. As winter approaches, many annual weeds are making their last effort to spread their seeds before they die. Don’t let them!!  Each plant can yield thousands of seeds which remain viable in your soil for up to 7 years. That can mean a lot of weeding in your future! Save yourself some effort and pull them now, before they go to seed.

While you’re at it, pull out perennial weeds as well, especially grass. These will only get stronger over the winter and make your life difficult in spring when it is time to plant. It can take months for your soil to freeze completely (if it does) and for your perennial weeds to go dormant for the winter. During this time they are taking advantage of your empty garden to spread.

The only perennial weed I don’t pull is dandelion because I love to eat the mild greens in the spring. Dandelion leaves are extremely nutritious, particularly vitamins A, C, K, and calcium, iron, potassium and manganese. They are very fortifying and cleansing for your body after a winter of heavy eating. I love to eat them in salad or cook them like spinach.

Although it may seem like nothing is happening in your garden over the winter, all kinds of things are happening beneath the soil. Soil life slows down as the temperature dips down, but it does remain somewhat active. These microbes process organic matter, turning it into rich soil for next year’s garden. When the soil finally freezes, they go dormant, waiting for thaw to start working again.

But if there is no organic matter, there is nothing for them to eat and you won’t have as many. Your soil will not be as biologically active and your garden next year will suffer. So be kind to your microbes and feed them. They love green things and non-diseased garden waste is ideal because it is already in your garden. Diseased plant material should be thrown away outside of your garden to prevent it from coming back next year.

Chop up the plant material so it is more available for the microbes to work on. I love to use a machete for this. I go to town, chopping and whacking, getting out all my frustrations and working up a nice sweat. It feels great in the cool autumn air and afterwards I feel more peaceful and centered. You can also use a sharp shovel or pruning shears, but you might not get the same psychological benefits.

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Once you have an inch or two of green material on your garden, think about giving your microbes a boost with some compost tea. Compost tea is an infusion of compost and when it is done right, contains a profusion of beneficial microbes. Put compost tea in a watering can and pour it over the green material in your beds. You can also just spread a thin layer of compost on top if you don’t have time to make the tea. Either way, adding extra microbes will speed up the decomposition process, giving you a boost of organic matter as well as microbes in the spring.

Now that you have your microbes going to town, protect them with a thick blanket of leaves. This will insulate the ground and keep it from freezing for a little while longer so your microbes can really make some progress. It will also protect your ground from the freeze-thaw cycle in case you have any bulbs like garlic planted, as well as keep winter rains from washing your soil away. Never leave bare soil in your garden over winter!

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If you think about it, this is the same process nature uses in a forest in the fall. Herbaceous plants die back to the ground and get covered with a blanket of leaves. During winter the microbes decompose the plants, returning the nutrients to the soil. In the spring there is little to no trace of the plant left. In our garden, we are simply mimicking that process to keep our garden nutrient-rich and productive.

So before the snow flies, get out there and put your garden to bed, and you can rest easy all winter knowing that the hard work is being done for you!