PREPARING THE GARDEN FOR WINTER: TIPS FOR NO-TILL GARDENING

by | Jan 28, 2020 | Grow

With the weather turning colder, it’s important to pay close attention to your garden soil. Getting your garden tucked in and ready for the winter sleep will give you a huge head-start in the Spring. If you follow our method of a no-till garden (or the lasagna method), your garden will have winter protection and will be ready to plant once the temperatures warm up in the Spring.

A man holding up a handful of garden mulch.

There are several things when tucking in your garden, I’ll be discussing specifics for no-till gardens (there are different methods if you’re planning to till, so be sure to read all the way to the bottom). 

Here on our homestead, we’re still establishing our beds because our soil started out very compact and lifeless with very little organic matter. I’ll be adding in a few steps this winter that I wouldn’t normally do on a regular growing season.

Steps to Prepare Your Garden for Winter

Before you can begin tucking the garden before the ground freezes, there are a few basic steps you’ll want to do.

1. Finish out your harvest – Don’t leave your goodies in the garden beds to freeze!

2. Remove plant material – Once the veggies have been harvested, you’ll want to remove all of the plant material. This means cutting down the vegetable garden at the roots, not pulling them up or disrupting the root structure. The roots will die into the soil and feed the biology and all the critters who live there. The roots will also add carbon to the soil at levels you can’t reach with a tiller because they go deep down into the soil. 

3. Add amendments – If your soil is still needing to be established, you may need to add in some compost before the next step. We want our soil rich with beneficial insects that help protect the soil, so you’ll want some good quality compost. If you’ve been building up your compost pile, you may have enough on hand to accomplish this.

We had to bring extra compost in this year as we’ll be adding about 2-3 inches. On a well-established garden, about ½-1 inch of compost should be sufficient to replenish any nutrients the soil may need for the winter.  

4. Cover the soil (put a blanket on her!) – We don’t plant a cover crop for winter, because of where we live, we know the garden will be covered in snow for the next 4-6 months, so we need to insulate our garden with mulch. (Read below for the different types of mulch).

We’ll be adding anywhere from 2-6 inches of dry mulch. This will break down nicely over the winter protecting the garden, insulating it and helping the soil to retain moisture.

Because we’re doing the “lasagna method”, the layering of materials also helps suppress the weeds. There are always weed seeds in the garden, but as you remove the weeds during the summer, then layer up the soil in the fall, you’re not disturbing the weed seeds or bringing them up to the surface. Over the years you’ll have fewer and fewer weeds.

Types of Mulch

There are a few types of mulch out there available to you, or you can make your own which is probably the best option. We’ll share what we’ve used and what mulch we prefer.

  • Hay mulch – this can oftentimes be found for free. Hay and straw make good mulch because they lay like a blanket over your soil, suppressing weeds and insulating the soil. It’s extremely important that you’re not getting hay or straw that has been sprayed. You do not want to introduce those chemicals into your garden.

    Hay doesn’t add too much nutrition to the soil, so this is a better option if your soil is already well established, healthy and full of nutrients. 
  • Wood shavings or wood chips – These are the shavings from the inside of trees. It does not include the bark or leaves. We picked up some maple wood shavings from a local cabinet shop. If you don’t have wood available to you to mulch yourself, this can be a great option as it’s organic and clean.

    Wood shavings also have more nutrients than hay, so this can help to further amend your soil. This can be a great option if you find a source available to you locally. Many times they’ll be happy to offload their excess. 
  • Homemade mulch from tree cuttings. This is as good as it gets because it’s organic, you’re using the resources you have on-site, and it has a diversity of materials in it (chopped leaves, bark, and wood) which encourage bacterial and fungal life, greatly improving the nutrient content of your soil.

    If you can’t make your own from trees and shrubs, the best thing you can do is find a local tree company or an arborist that might allow you to take away their mulching from tree cuttings and clippings. Tree trimmings are great because it has the bark, sometimes leaves and all the organic material instead of just the inside wood. 

We definitely think if resources abound on your property, that you invest in some gardening tools such as a wood chipper. We bought this BCS that’s on a two-wheel tractor with the capability to change out instruments. This is great because we know we’ll get more use out of it (like a snow-blower this winter!) and many other tools over the years. It’s a great investment and, oftentimes, you’ll be able to share your resources with neighbors (or perhaps they’ll share their cuttings with you!).

What Items Can You Compost and Mulch?

  • Cardboard
  • Newspaper (not the waxy or glossy sections)
  • Leaves from your yard
  • Garden waste
  • Tree trimmings

The goal for us is to get to where we can mulch our tree trimmings, cardboard, newspaper and garden clippings, let it sit for a year and then just top dress the garden once a year with that. Because we’re still amending our soil to bring it up to a higher quality, we still need to bring in the good compost and then mulch on top of that.

What NOT to do!!!

  • Don’t leave the soil bare, don’t leave all the material there to deal with in the spring, prepare it now so when it starts warming up in the spring, your garden will be all ready to plant without any additional work.
  • If you till your garden, one tip is DO NOT TILL YOUR MULCH into your garden. You’ll end up with too much carbon, too much organic material and you’ll have a problem for quite a while getting your nitrogen levels up. 

Want More Gardening Tips?

Click here for more tips on creating a no-till garden where we quickly turned a section of our yard that was covered in sod into a bountiful cottage garden using the layering method (or lasagna gardening).

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