For home gardeners, staying in tune with the seasons is a huge part of a successful harvest year after year. Unless you don’t live in Southern California, Arizona or Florida, chances are the weather is starting to cool, and it is time to think about winterizing your garden!
Consider Cover Crops
After your summer harvest, consider planting “cover crops” such as clover, winter rye or vetch. These plants break up compacted soils, improve water infiltration, add organic matter and fix nitrogen. Till the green growth into the soil in the fall as green manure or leave the plants over winter to work into the soil come spring.
Plant Garlic and Greens
Fall may feel like the end of the growing season, but is actually the best time to plant garlic. You can source garlic heads from your local farmers market, then break each one into individual cloves, leaving the skin on to help protect from fungus. Plant each clove 4” deep, 6” apart, with the root end down. Then mulch with straw or dried, seed-free grass. Bulbs hibernate over winter and begin sprouting in spring!
Depending on the extremity of your local winter, you can also plant cold-hearty greens such as spinach, kale or chard for a year-round harvest. To insulate your plants and extend the growing season, install metal or PVC pipe hoops about 2’ tall over your garden beds, then cover with row cover, a fabric specifically made to insulate plants while still allowing sun to penetrate. Old sheets or blankets can also be used but make sure to uncover your plants during the day to allow sunlight in.
Test Your Soil
Autumn, after the rush of the summer season, is also a great time to test your soil. Soil testing is recommended every three to five years and is the best way to tell which amendments and nutrients your garden needs. Many soil testing sites will also give personalized recommendations based on your results! After the last of the harvest and before the ground freezes is the sweet spot to “put your garden to bed” through winterizing.
First, remove all weeds, then work any garden amendments into the top 2-4” of soil. Mountain Roots recommends natural inputs such as worm castings, blood/bone meal and composted organics such as manure or food scraps to support a healthy soil ecosystem. (A note on manure: source matters! Herbicides can pass through the guts of animals and consequently affect plant growth). To stay organic when purchasing garden amendments, look for OMRI certified products.
Finally, mulch with straw or cover with a tarp— this helps keep weed pressure down and provide extra warmth for the soil ecosystem, including worms and the ever important soil microbiome. In the spring, simply remove the mulch or tarp and proceed to plant!
How to Weed
Do you have a particularly weedy area or want to replace your lawn with food crops? First, mow, weed whack or pull weeds. Next, cover the area with a couple layers of cardboard and a couple inches of compost or soil. Leave it over winter to smother the weeds and allow the cardboard to break down. Cardboard also provides additional carbon for plant uptake. Come spring, proceed to plant! If you have particularly persistent weeds, cover with an opaque, dark tarp for about six weeks to solarize and kill weeds.
Finally, remember that gardening is an ever-evolving practice. Patience, experimenting and sharing ideas with others in your community can all have grand and positive effects on your gardening journey.
At the Mountain Roots Food Project, we focus on regenerative growing practices that enhance soil diversity and whole ecosystem health, avoiding synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides—cover cropping is one of these regenerative methods!
Isabel Rosenstein is the Food Security Coordinator for Mountain Roots Food Security Project who are on a mission to cultivate a resilient food system in the Gunnison Valley by enhancing healthy connections between food, earth, and community. We foster knowledge, teach skills, and provide opportunities that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and sustainably produced food.