It’s normal to feel a little defeated with your garden by the end of the season, but don’t throw in the garden tools quite yet
The key to a healthy, thriving spring garden is pushing to do that last bit of prep work before winter strikes.
These steps make all the difference for next year’s garden success, so let’s get to it...
1. It's time to harvest what’s left
Harvest your tender veggies before any frost strikes. This includes your squash, peas, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. Semi-hardy vegetables (which tolerate light frosts from 29 to 32 degrees F) need a cold-frame or floating row cover, or you can harvest them before the hard frost hits. This includes cabbages, Swiss chard, arugula, leeks, mustard greens, cauliflower and kohlrabi. Root vegetables like beets, carrots, turnips and parsnips can remain in the garden after a frost but remove and store them before the ground freezes. Hardy vegetables (tolerate a frost from 25 to 28 degrees F) can be left in the ground with little to no cover, but a bit of mulch to insulate the soil. This includes Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, broccoli, spinach and garlic.
2. Cut plants, but leave the roots
Once you’ve harvested and you’re tidying up the plants, resist the temptation to pull the entire plant (root and all). Cutting the plant below the crown but above the root allows the roots to hold your soil in place (which minimizes erosion and helps hold in moisture), and once the roots decompose, they feed the beneficial insects and microbes over winter.
3. Chop and drop
Unless your plant is diseased, it’s perfectly safe to drop your cut crops right back onto your garden. This goes for any weeds you find too, just make sure to pull these out roots and all!. Weeds pull up nutrients from deep within the soil, so pulling and dropping them onto the topsoil brings those nutrients to the surface. The best time to do this is on a stretch of sunny days where the crops will dry and begin to decompose and there’s little risk of them re-rooting. These plants serve as a green mulch blanket for your garden through the winter, and also help to build soil structure, which means better, healthier soil come spring (along with fewer weeds).
4. Discard the disease
Some of your plants may have had trouble with disease—that’s normal! You’ll just want to discard those from the garden so disease doesn’t spread into next year’s garden. If you have a hot compost pile or a municipal compost system, you can toss your plants in there as the heat will destroy any disease. As for home composting or cold composting, they don’t get hot enough to break down disease, so it’s best to burn or discard diseased plants in this case.
5. Amend your soil
After you’ve chopped and dropped, add a bit of compost (organic matter) for the winter. Good compost goes a long way, so you’ll only need about a two-inch layer on top for existing garden beds, but about six to 10 inches for a new garden bed if you have clay in your yard. Autumn is the best time to amend your soil because it acts as another protective coating for winter rather than leaving it exposed. This also allows the compost enough time to integrate with your topsoil before spring planting time.
6. Cover crop
Cover crops act as a living mulch, which develop roots to hold your soil in place, while also feeding the organisms through winter and building up your soil. Cover crops are usually a nitrogen-rich plant (legume and/or grass) and it’s best to use a mixture of the two for a variety of nutrients for your soil. Make sure to choose a plant that can survive the cold temperatures, scatter the seeds over your bed, and then before planting in the spring, just chop and drop as usual.
7. Mulch your garden
Whether you cover-cropped or not, mulching is a wonderful final addition to your garden bed before putting it to sleep. Just add one to three inches of mulch on top of your garden bed, which can be leaves, grass clippings, straw or hay, wood chips, etc. Make sure they’re an organic source (and not sprayed with chemicals), especially if using borrowed materials from a neighbour or friend.
8. Make your new garden beds and expand now
Although spring seems like the best time to expand your garden, autumn is actually the ideal time to get these new projects going. The weather is cool enough that you don’t mind doing a little heavy lifting, it gives you a nice project for when the early darkness is setting in, you have fewer weeds to battle, and you can allow your compost and soil to adjust throughout the winter.