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How to Winterize a Garden

By Peter V. Fossel

One of the worst moments comes when the growing season is over and weeds and debris once again have reclaimed the garden plot. Not many possibilities there.

I used to walk away from our annual flower and vegetable garden then, until I learned a secret most country families knew generations back, and it's this: The garden needs you in the fall more than ever if you want to ensure a beautiful, bountiful plot next spring and summer.

The Secret is in the Mulch

When the season's done, pull any big weeds or other vegetation and add them to the compost pile. (If you have no compost pile, start one. Compost is the finest ingredient you can put in any garden.) Then, loosen the soil with a tiller, hoe, or hand cultivator enough to rake out the smaller weeds and roots, leaving you a clean bed of earth.

While the ground still is warm, plant spring-flowering bulbs in part of your garden, to give you a shot of early cheer, and perhaps garlic cloves in another. Homegrown garlic is the best, especially grown organically. Or throw in some mums for late fall color. If given enough water and mulched deeply before winter, mums can grow and bloom for years.

When this cheerful work is done, add lime or other amendments your garden may need and work it into the soil. Now cover all this with a deep layer of organic matter - and I mean a really deep layer: three inches is good; six is better. Use leaves, grass clippings, kitchen swill, peat moss, straw, anything you can find. Fall is full of organic matter. Collect all you can and lay it upon the garden like a deep winter blanket.

We never have enough leaves at our house, so we invite landscape contractors to drop off theirs. Many towns offer free leaf mulch from their recycling centers. deep layer of organic matter performs several wondrous tasks while you pass the winter indoors.

First, it eliminates the need for spring digging, hoeing, or tilling. When you're ready to plant, simply pull back the mulch to find the richest, crumbly earth you can imagine-ready for seeds or plants.

The mulch also acts as an insulating blanket, to lessen or eliminate frost penetration and allow you to plant earlier.

Some of this organic matter will have decayed into compost by spring, adding natural fertilizer and nutrients to the soil. The rest will decay eventually. In the meantime, use it as mulch between rows and around plants.

This helps conserve soil moisture, and acts as a welcome mat to earthworms- which will aerate the soil with their tunnels and fertilize all summer with their castings.

Done right, fall mulching eliminates the need for summer weeding or cultivating. Simply continue to add a thick, protective blanket of organic matter next fall, and the work is done.