Its time to be setting the stage for spring. With fall upon us and winter not far behind, many of us are winding down our gardening and landscape activities. As winter approaches, some of you may be looking forward to a break in the summer workload of tending your garden and landscape. However, if you are like me, you are already thinking ahead to next spring.
For some of us, it is just those first thoughts about what to plant and what seeds I need to start planning to purchase. We get caught up in looking toward those first warmer early spring days and forget about the prep work that needs to be done in the garden and landscape to prepare.
To have a successful early spring and summer garden, and to get a headstart on your landscape, now is the time to begin setting the stage for spring. Starting now will allow your garden and landscape a jumpstart next spring. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Soil building doesn’t stop because the weather gets cold, or there is snow on the ground. That mass of life just below the surface of your soil needs to be cared for in winter as well. Keeping that soil biome healthy and active during the winter months will allow all those creatures to return with vigor in the spring.
- Don’t till! Remember, we tossed that tiller months ago. Don’t be tempted to spade or fork your garden. You don’t want to destroy that living network of organisms in your soil at this time of the year. Actually, you don’t want to do that at any time.
- Don’t remove your summer plants by the roots. Cut the plant stalks at ground level and leave the root system in the soil. The root system is full of nutrients, and as it decays, it adds to the organic matter in the soil and provides pathways for water to infiltrate and for more life to grow in the soil.
- Continue to feed your soil once a month during the winter with compost tea. See our article on compost tea here.
- Refresh your mulch. If you haven’t planted cover crops add to your mulch layer. I recommend increasing the mulch layer to as much as 10” in grow beds that are not being planted with cover crops over winter. The extra thick layer of mulch helps insulate the ground against cold weather, retains moisture and will prevent most of the winter weeds from germination. In the spring, you can pull the top layers off to plant if you find it too thick.
- Don’t forget to water. You don’t need to water as much, but you should still check the moisture content of your soil. The soil biome depends on soil moisture to survive. If you let the soil dry out over winter, you risk losing much of the life in the top layers of soil which can lead to the loss of aggregates in that top layer and leave you with dead, crusty, compacted soil in the spring.
- Consider planting cover crops. There are many cover crops, particularly those that fix nitrogen in the soil. Planting some legumes or other plants that capture nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil is an excellent way of building soil. The living roots in the soil promote the health of the soil biome, the foliage of the plants provides a living mulch, and the plant will provide a nitrogen boost to the plants that you put into your garden next spring.
Preparing your landscape for winter and the following spring is much the same as your vegetable gardens. The major difference is maintaining those perennial plants that need to over-winter. Your turf is another perennial that needs care through the winter months as well to have it ready to burst back to life as the weather warms.
- Now is a good time to trim dead or diseased limbs from your shrubs and trees. There are enough leaves left to make identifying those that need to be removed. If I am planning on pruning living wood during the dormant months, I will often use a bit of ribbon or surveyors tape to mark those limbs that I want to remove. It is amazing how hard it is to identify those limbs after the leaves have fallen.
- As your perennial landscape plants begin to go dormant, you should be removing the dead foliage. Don’t through it away. Compost it. By the time spring rolls around you will have some rich compost ready to top dress your landscape and garden.
- It may be time to divide some of your perennial plants. Those that grow from bulbs or rhizomes may be ready to divide.
- Don’t scalp your yard. There is no good reason to scalp a yard in the fall or the spring. See our article on turf care. If anything, leave the turf a bit longer than usual. Set your mower one setting higher and leave your turf fuzzy for the winter. The leaves of the turf will act as a natural cover for the living soil.
- Apply corn gluten meal at a rate of 20 to 60 lbs per 1000 square feet. Corn gluten meal comes in two varieties. One has 20% protein, and the other has 60% protein. Read the labels carefully and apply them accordingly. If the protein level is 20% apply at the 60lb rate. Corn Gluten Meal has natural pre-emergent effects and can help prevent many of the winter weeds from sprouting. It is all-natural and benefits the soil and the soil biome as well. Apply once in the fall before the winter weed seed germinates and once in early spring before the spring weed seeds germinate
- Top dress your turn with ½ to ¾ of an inch of high-quality compost. Spread it evenly over your turf, water it lightly to help it settle to the soil surface. It will be a bit unsightly for a few days but will soon disappear. You will see the benefits in the spring when your turf uses the nitrogen to springboard back to life. I like to top-dress my turf in the fall a few days after I apply corn gluten meal and once in the spring on the same schedule.
- Water your turf and landscape throughout the winter months. For most turf grasses in our area, once or twice a month is all that is necessary. This is especially true on bermudagrass. My advice is always water only when necessary. Check the soil moisture and water when needed. Landscape plantings need the same care. Despite being dormant, they need moisture in the soil. The parts above the ground are brown and look dead. Below ground the plant roots are hard at work, storing nutrients and building root structure for the coming season.
Around the Garden
Don’t neglect all the things that go into making your garden and landscape a joy. Tools and equipment are important, as well.
- As you put your garden implements and equipment away for the winter inspect them, make any repairs, sharpen and oil as needed. Get them ready for spring as you store them away for winter.
- Winterize power equipment properly as it is stored. See our article on winterizing for more specific information.
- Store your garden hoses where they will not freeze. Even if they are drained, the extreme cold can make rubber and poly hoses brittle and subject to damage. Repair any leaks, replace washers, and change out the fittings if they are damaged or bent.
- If you garden in raised beds, prepare them for spring by replacing any rotten or damaged wood sections. Now is also a good time to build new raised beds and start preparing that soil for spring planting.
- Continue to turn and tend to your compost piles. During the winter, we sometimes neglect this part of our garden. We add fresh material to our compost piles from our kitchen throughout the winter. Turn the pile at least once a month and make sure your ratio of brown to green material is at least close to the recommendations.
Setting the stage for spring begins in the fall. A little attention to your garden and landscape in the fall and winter can launch your spring garden earlier and with surprising results.
Links and Resources
For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.
If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest.
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