You put a ton of effort into developing your garden through the warm months, so make sure it’s protected once the cold settles in. If you want to ensure your garden is happy and healthy come springtime, heed these tips from the Hilltop Hanover Farm & Environmental Center.
Mid-October is usually when the first frost happens, but it could come earlier or later than that. There is a month-wide window when we anticipate the arrival of the first frost, which will kill any remaining summer plants such like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Luckily, the depth of frost isn’t too significant to worry about for cold-weather gardening in our region.
Keeping the soil covered with mulch in between plants such as tomatoes. Usually, you will plant your tomatoes four feet apart, then plant shorter, quicker growing crops such as radishes or arugula underneath the tomatoes to keep the soil covered, yielding a better crop. Most natural soil doesn’t have all of the minerals that vegetable plants generally need to survive, so it’s a good idea to get a soil test to see what minerals your soil is deficient in. If your soil is deficient in essential minerals, your plants will have problems with diseases because they’re not getting the proper “food” needed to thrive. Also, when you buy fertilizer and soil from the store, it won’t always have everything that the plants need.
October is too late for planting. Daylight hours are limited in the fall, so mid-October is when plants stop growing, so make sure your plants are ready to harvest before then. If your plants are protected, you can pick them throughout November and December while they’re dormant.
Some vegetables such as arugula, mizuna, radishes, and other leafy greens only take a month to grow so you could plant them in September and harvest them in October. The later you get into the fall, the less options you have for plants.
Mulch is important in every season, but especially helpful in the wintertime. When you go for a walk in the woods, you rarely see bare dirt, and you always see leaves on the ground, which is the “natural mulch” you want to mimic.
Mulch helps retain moisture so the plants’ roots don’t dry out. It will provide a better microclimate for not only the roots of the plants, but also the microbiology in the soil such as bacteria and fungi. Bacteria and fungi depend on a stable climate underneath the leaves and the soil. They work with the plants to provide nutrients for a healthy plant, which will provide more nutrient-rich foods.
You don’t need to water your plants when the ground is frozen because plants are dormant in the winter.
A great book to reference is The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. Eliot Coleman is a farmer in Maine who pioneered winter gardening techniques. You can grow plants in the fall and keep them covered and protected so that you can pick them all winter long even if the plants aren’t still growing. You can still harvest plants for weeks after they’re done growing.
If you’re growing carrots in the fall, instead of digging them up when it gets cold, you can leave them in the ground and cover them with six inches of leaves or hay. That will protect the plants and keep the ground from freezing. Once you want to pick the carrots, you can dig them up—all winter long—because the soil won’t be frozen (thanks to the mulch covering). This technique works with root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and sunchokes.
In substitute of hay or leaves, farmers also use a thin white fabric sheet to cover their crops in the case of early frost, or if they want to prolong the farming season. Sunlight and rain can still penetrate the sheet, but it protects from insects and frost, which makes it a great alternative to mulching.
Planting bulbs to the right depth is very important. Bulbs must be 4-6 inches deep to survive the winter.
It’s important to pick the right trees and shrubs for your climate and area. You should plant trees in the spring so that they have a chance to grow their roots and establish themselves before they go dormant for winter. For example, it’s better to plant fruit trees in the springtime. People cover their young trees and shrubs with burlap for the winter for added protection.
Fig trees and citrus trees are usually brought inside during the winter or wrapped with sheets to keep them from freezing.
For more information about gardening in the cold or to sign up for a class at Hilltop Hanover, visit the site.