Sunday, November 4, 2012

Putting the Garden to Bed

Volunteers make one final harvest before taking down the garden

It's that time of year in Wisconsin - time to prepare and protect our soils for the coming winter season.  The first step in winter preparations is to take out as much plant matter as you can.  Any leaves or fruit that have disease on them should be thrown out, but non-diseased stems, leaves and veggies should be composted. 

Cutting your plant trimmings before adding to compost helps them break down more quickly

Once you've 'cleared' the garden, it's time to rebuild the soil.  Fall is the best time to add organic matter (i.e. compost) to your garden, as it will take the next 6 months or so to break down and release its nutrients into the earth.  Then your garden will be ready to go in the spring! 
Beds are empty and ready to receive cover crop! 

Protection is the final - and arguably most important step - in winter preparations. There are basically two protection options: mulch and cover cropping. Mulch is a good way to protect the soil surface from rain, wind, and snow damage.  It can also help protect any perennial herbs or plants you are overwintering.  However, cover cropping can achieve the same protection while adding nutrients to the soil below the surface. Cover crops are usually cereal grains or legumes that are planted in the fall, allowed to germinate and then are killed or 'turned under' in the spring, creating green mulch and adding a fresh source of nitrogen before your first plantings.  

Water the garden until your cover crop has germinated - then  you're  free to rest until spring!

This year we are using Winter Rye for our cover crop because we are getting a late start.  Winter Rye is the one cover crop that be planted after the first frost and still have a chance of germinating.  Because it is winter hardy, however, it does pose some challenges in the spring when it's time to turn it under. Winter Rye can be purchased in the bulk section at your local grocery store and should be planted at a rate of 3oz per 100 sq. ft.  In the spring when it grows to about a foot high it should be mowed down then worked into the soil.  Always wait at least two weeks after turning under your cover crop to plant in that soil - that give the plant material time to break down and the nitrogen to become available for your newly planted seeds.

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