Putting The Garden To Bed For Winter The No-Dig Way
Doing a bit of work out in the garden in fall makes for a really easy spring; You’ll plant sooner, have little to no pests, and enjoy happy, healthy, thriving veggies.
1. Post Harvest Clean Up! Remove All Extra Vegetation
After you have harvested your summer veggies, canned and stored them to enjoy throughout the winter, it is garden clean up time. This is the most important step to take now for a pest free garden next year.
Remove everything from the surface of your beds... spent tomato, squash and cucumber vines, all stems, leaves, seedlings and other plant debris lying around on top of the bed. Try to ensure you get all the debris, as it provides winter hiding spots for bugs and their eggs. Cabbage moths, stink bugs, aphids, leaf hoppers, crickets, grasshoppers, and so many more, may all be trying to overwinter their off-spring in your garden. The better your clean up now, the less bad bugs you will have next year.
The only green material left standing should be your winter veggies and perennials like rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus. Clean these guys up well also, removing any brown or yellowing bits.
Compost your garden waste, layering browns and greens for faster cooking compost. Bring all diseased and super buggy plant material to the dump, or burn, do not compost.
2. Weed & Bug Control!
This is the time to get those weeds under control. When the fall rains start, weed seeds on the surface of the soil suddenly all sprout to life.
Remove them by hand, or knock them over with a hoe. I gently pull out all large and/or tap rooted weeds but prefer to knock the wee ones down. Do not leave them lying on top of the beds to die unless it is sunny and dry out or they may quickly take root again during the next rainfall.
My favourite tool for quick fall clean up, is the Winged Weeder. It slices the weeds down from all sides, push or pull, without digging into or disturbing the soil. As it just skims right under the surface, is perfect for us no-dig gardener types. Regular hoes disturb the soil surface which just brings up more weed seeds to deal with. (Nope, no kick backs for telling you about this tool, just sharing a tip about a really great hoe)
If you are a companion planter, as I am, you will also have lots of volunteer plant popping up … calendula, nasturtiums, marigolds, borage, lemon balm, all kinds of wee little sprouts springing up everywhere. I remove them all as more will pop in spring.
As you run your hoe through the soil to uproot the weeds, you may also uproot bad bugs and grubs, like cutworms, slugs, pill bugs… Remove and squish or drown in a bucket of soapy water. If you are squeamish, toss them somewhere out of your garden area, leaving them for the birds to eat.
Be sure to also go along the wooden boards of the bed really well. This is where lots of weed seeds float to over the summer and fall, but most importantly, it is also where slugs and bugs like to hide out and lay their eggs. By running your hoe around the side, you are uprooting them all, disturbing them. If you have a big slug or pill bug issue, this is a must do. It is super easy and very effective. You will want to do this again in spring, before you begin planting, in case you missed some bugs or weeds.
*Stink Bugs - This year, the island had a huge issue with stink bugs ((the brown marmorated stink bug). This shield shaped bug will go after a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, from raspberries and asian pears to corn and tomatoes. It is a very nasty bug that will cause your corn to rot, your raspberries to taste foul, your tomatoes to turn to mush.
It currently has no biological controls. Each female can lay up to 400 eggs once or twice a season, which hatch in less than a week.. meaning that if you are not proactive, you will soon be fighting a really big battle with a bug that is hard to control. So, please do a really great clean up. Go over your strawberry plants really well for eggs and bugs, drown them in soapy water. I actually took mine right out of the potager, moved them up to the front yard, far away from my food crops. The bugs prefer to overwinter in buildings like your shed, garage, house, and they also like your woodlot. Try to mitigate places close to your food crops where they might hide… have stumps for plant pots? Crates, boxes, logs, or other items that you like to use for décor? Move all these things away from your potager till next summer. Give them a good hosing down before you store them, and praying with a Safer’s Soap product is also a great idea.
3. Top Dress Now! Super important!
Top dressing is literally food for your soil! Feed your garden beds with 1 to 3 inches of compost or manure annually, to feed your plants next year. Organic gardening is all about feeding the soil to feed the plants rather than using fertiliser to feed the plants, ignoring the soil.
Top dressing with compost or manure feeds the soil, suppresses weeds, improves water penetration and retention, and keeps the beneficial micro-organisms thriving in your garden. You will never need to use fertilisers again.
Layer the manure on top of your soil, rake to smooth out, and walk away. Nutrients will be carried through your soil by the elements, the earthworms, and the beneficial insects and organisms living in the soil. Do not dig in, do not turn your soil, and do not ever roto-till. Roto-tilling destroys soil structure, brings up weed seeds, not to mention what it does to the earthworms, beneficial insects, microbes, and fungi threads.
Ideally, use your own homemade compost if you have enough. If not, in addition, add any kind of manure that you like. Horse manure is usually free or inexpensive, but tends to be quite weedy. Chicken manure is my manure of choice, but steer, sheep, or mushroom are all great, as well. Every few years, change it up and add some fish compost instead. Adding diverse soil conditioners to feed your soil, makes for even better results.
Investing in your soil, feeding it to make it rich, fertile, and friable, is the single best investment you can make towards a fantastic, healthy, productive, and bug free kitchen garden.
4. Test & Amend!
If you feel that your soil is not producing as well as you would like, test it to check for deficiencies and amend accordingly. Do not dig in the amendments, just layer on with your manure and you are done. They will be carried through your soil by the winter rains and earthworms, ready for you to plant up again in spring. Organic amendments may be wood ashes, lime, alfalfa, bone meal, blood meal, rock phosphates, kelp meal ...
Amending now means that the nutrients have time to break down over the winter months, and are therefore available for your seedlings to uptake in the spring when you plant. Some nutrients will take 4 months or more to become accessible in the soil, especially if you are trying to change your pH.
Organic gardening is all about feeding the soil to feed the plants. The more time and effort that you put into it now, the less work you will have next summer. You will not have to feed your plants in summer, at all, if you have invested in creating great soil.
5. Beneficial Insects!
So ... Now that you have removed all the leaves and bits of debris from your veggie garden, you may be wondering where the beneficial insects, like ladybugs, are supposed to over winter?
Easy answer ... anywhere and everywhere, except in your food garden! You want to make your yard into a wildlife haven so that the good guys are there, all around, thriving and more than happy to eat up your bad guys before they find your food crops/garden.
Make the rest of your yard a paradise for birds, bees, frogs, snakes, spiders, bats, and all other beneficial insects and critters by creating a wildlife friendly habitat. Leave your ornamental grasses and perennial flowers standing to offer seeds for birds and refuge for critters and insects. Make brush piles and raked leaf piles. Mulch around your trees, shrubs and perennials with wood chips, or bark, for the good guys to live in. They (ladybugs) also love to live in your wood lot!
Make a bug house, they are both super cute and fun to make with your kids. Sure, the bad insects may over-winter in them, too, but if you have a healthy organic garden with great diversity, the good guys will soon get rid of them.
You want your yard to be a year round home for all small critters and insects, so provide places for them to hide, live, reproduce and be. You will have a fantastic, happy, healthy yard, and a super happy kitchen garden!