Winterizing Your Garden

Posted on Monday, 5 October 2020 under Local Food & Agriculture

It’s just about that time of year to think about winding down your garden after a bountiful growing season. Typically, the thinking is to clean up the garden by pulling out old plants, turning over the soil, adding compost, etc. As it turns out, all this hard work is not only unnecessary, it is actually detrimental to the soil and to wildlife. By doing less and practicing different techniques, your garden will capture carbon and build up healthy soil for the next season. Here are practical ways you can prepare your garden for winter that benefit wildlife, the environment, and your future self.

Let The Plants Rot in Your Garden

Leaving plants to decay in your garden is beneficial for several reasons. First, old plant matter can provide valuable nutrients to go back into your soil. There is greater potential for it to break down allowing nutrients to seep back into the soil that will be beneficial for next years’ plants. Second, it acts as the perfect habitat for wildlife. Some of the wildlife that will use your old rotting plants as homes for the winter are:

  • Native Bees – Many native bee populations need places to spend the cold winter months that are safe from predators. They may find hollowed-out plants to tuck away in or nestle under some bark or larger plant material. Many of North America’s native bees are ground-nesting, so often they will bury in a safe place under plant material and in the ground to lay an egg and leave their larvae to burrow all winter. All native bees are important pollinators, so removing every last piece of material in the garden, leaving them stranded for the winter does us no good. Gardens can provide them a much needed habitat during the winter.
  • Ladybugs – North America is home to hundreds of ladybug species, many of which spend their winters tucked under piles of leaves, the bases of plants, under rocks, and anywhere else they can find safe refuge. Ladybugs are notoriously good pest eaters, so keeping them around in your garden is a huge win for all of us.
  • Predatory insects – There are plenty of predatory insects beyond ladybugs that you want in your garden. At all stages of life, they nestle into decaying plant material just as other insects do. Predatory insects help control pest populations so give them a reason to stick around your garden, especially in the spring as pests emerge in greater numbers.
  • Butterflies – Some butterflies fly south to overwinter, however many stick around including swallowtail and cabbage white, and take shelter until spring. Chrysalis hang from dead stems or amongst old leaves and decaying plant material, so leaving as much as you can in your garden for them is the best way to ensure they have a habitat for the winter.
  • Birds – One of the reasons it is beneficial to provide insect-friendly habitat in your garden over the winter is to provide a winter food source for birds. By leaving your overgrown plants in the garden, birds will have the opportunity to feast on seeds and berries.

Set Your Soil Up for Success

Not only will the following pointers set next year’s plants up for success, but they will also benefit the environment by capturing more carbon in the soil. By using any of the suggestions listed below, there will be less carbon released into the atmosphere and more readily available nutrients for next year’s plants. Although capturing carbon in your garden is on a small scale, it is important to make an effort to contribute to best practices.

Leave your soil undisturbed. Try to avoid turning over your soil unless you have a good reason to do so.

  • If you don’t have a lot of decaying plant material, find a way to mulch your garden using dried-up leaves, wood chips, etc. Providing your soil with a covering protects it from the harsh winter weather.
  • Keep weeds over winter, but be sure to remove them early in the spring before they flower and go to seed. The weeds will keep nutrients in the soil and protect the soil from erosion.
  • Plant cover crops. Hardy legumes provide a fabulous nitrogen source for next years’ crops.
  • Add a thick layer of compost and cover with leaves. Your soil will benefit greatly from this technique.

These insects are vital to the success of your garden, ensuring they have habitat for the winter months is important for the long-term success and sustainability of your growing space. Giving back to the soil encourages carbon sequestration and building nutrients, a benefit for both you, the gardener, and our climate. As your beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens wind down, start thinking about the best way to winterize your garden.