Winter is tough for gardeners who live in zones with shorter growing seasons. In New Mexico, we can typically get outside in winter to work on between-season chores because we usually have dry, sunny conditions. Not so much this year. We’ve had unusual cold, wind and now about 18 to 20 inches of snow.
Even with snow and cold, there are a few things gardeners can do in winter to satisfy their outdoor cravings and grow a bit of their own food. And our gardens certainly don’t rest all winter; with a little help, the soil rebuilds to nourish next year’s plants. Dormant or dried plants feed wildlife while their food is scarce.
Extend the season with row cover
Like I said, most winters are relatively mild in New Mexico. Although nights in the high desert cool considerably, the days can warm up to at least 50 degrees F. I covered an existing carrot trough to keep the carrots from freezing; they keep much better in the ground than anywhere I can store them once harvested. If you live in zone 8 or warmer, you can grow carrots in winter. We’re trying a new crop and storage/preservation of an established crop in our trough planter.
We constructed a small hoop house with row cover cloth to extend the season for early spring or late fall. We spread our carrot, lettuce and spinach seeds inside the hoop tunnel in fall and had a really good germination rate. The carrots are growing slowly, however, and I hope to plant them a little earlier next year. Then again, I also hope for a warmer winter.
Prepare the vegetable garden for spring
Before the snow came, we got outside a few times to at least prep our vegetable and herb gardens for next spring. We didn’t have a chance to plant cover crops, and that’s on our list as a strategy for next year in part of the garden. But we want our gardens to rebuild important soil nutrients, so we pulled up some of the frost-bitten plants. Any that looked unhealthy went into a weed pile, but we added much of the material to our compost bin, and left some in the garden. We chopped up the healthy plant material left in garden rows to help it break down faster.
Although we compost, we don’t generate enough to cover our entire vegetable garden, so we purchased mushroom compost, our favorite organic matter. We busted up compacted dirt and built the beds up so they’re slightly raised. Next, we used a small cultivator to work the compost into the top few inches. It’s not the same as tilling, which turns up deeper soil and weed seeds. We’d love to cover the beds with leaves or other mulch, but the wind rules that out. So we used plastic or black fabric cloth on hand. The purpose is mostly to keep weed seeds from blowing onto our clean beds and taking root. In spring, we’ll add a little more compost and mix the soil lightly a few weeks before planting.
Leave some plant material for wildlife
Schools of thought about fall garden clean-up differ. On the one hand, the more leaves and other plant material you leave on the ground, the higher your chance of insects and weeds using your garden as their winter home. And I agree in many ways with that school of thought. We didn’t want the mess of dried annuals everywhere, and I wouldn’t want a giant pile of leaves up against areas of the garden or house.
Leaving leaves on grass as mulch for the winter is a great idea, but only if you have a way to break the leaves up with a mower or other method. If you don’t, they’re not likely to compost down before spring. Not cutting back any ornamentals can leave your winter garden looking sad and messy. Plant debris can build up and leave you with more work than you bargained for in spring, when you’d rather spend your time planting than cleaning.
We take a middle-of-the-road approach. We pulled up many, but not all, annuals to keep the garden from being a messy jungle and home to critters we don’t want. We left some for birds to land on or feed from. They take shelter in and eat from roses and other bushes left unpruned until early spring. And we don’t mow our grass late in the season; that’s proven to attract and feed wild turkeys, deer and elk.
In some areas, we cleaned up fallen leaves and used them to mulch tender perennials. But we didn’t try to rake leaves down by the river. That might help butterfly and other larvae through the winter, and if it also helps insects we don’t want, at least it’s far from the gardens.
The bottom line is that even if you can’t do much in your garden in winter, your garden and soil are doing lots for you and other living creatures. I try not to stress over whether I’m handling it perfectly, but choose and alter our approach based on what works best and what makes me feel best as I stare out the window at a blanket of white, itching to get back outside.