Prepping the Garden & Orchard for Winter
By this time of year, most of us are ready for a break. It becomes easy to just leave the garden as it is and worry about it in the spring. Although leaving it for spring is tempting after a long year of tending the garden and orchard, there are things you can do now that will reduce the amount of work you need to do in the busy months of spring and can improve your soil and harvest next year. Just as importantly there are things you might think you need to clean up that are actually better to wait for spring. So let’s review what’s best to do and not to do in the next month.
What to Do: In the Garden
Pull out, or cut off at ground level, all plants left in the garden that you don’t intend to harvest. If the plants are left standing dead, any pathogens that might be on the plant can survive winter and reinfect the garden next year. However, cutting the plants down and giving time over winter for them to compost can help break the disease cycle.
If the plant you are removing had a disease that you noticed, the best idea would be to either put it in the yard waste or allow it to fully compost before using it anywhere in the garden. If the plant didn’t have a noticeable disease you can compost it or you can also leave it on the soil surface and then cover it with mulch so that it can break down over winter.
This is also a good time to aerate, amend, and mulch your garden soil. Doing these actions in the fall gives the microorganisms in the soil time to improve your soil so that it’s rich and ready to go in the spring. The first step is aeration. We don’t recommend tilling, as it causes enormous damage to the beneficial organisms in the soil. Instead, we recommend using a digging fork, or ideally a broadfork, to aerate the soil without pulverizing and turning it. What you do is simply push the tines of the tool into the soil and then pull the handle back towards you to about a 45-degree angle. This will lift and crack the soil, allowing oxygen to get deep into the soil and breaking up compaction much deeper than a tiller ever could. Then move the tool back 6-12” and repeat the process all the way down the bed.
After you aerate your soil it is the perfect time to add any amendments. If you need to add something like sulfur or lime to change the soil pH, manure, or compost this is a great time to add it to the soil surface. Worms and other soil organisms will integrate it into the soil and pull it down deep into the soil profile over the long months of winter.
We then recommend topping the soil with a nice deep layer of mulch. Any plant material can be used as mulch but our favorites are straw and tree leaves. Mulched tree leaves stay in place more easily, whereas full leaves are more prone to blowing away. You can apply 3-6” of mulch to the soil surface. Mulch helps to insulate the soil surface, this protects the soil from the temperature wings that can happen throughout winter. These moderated temperatures help to keep worms and microorganisms active in the soil surface. This means that all winter long the worms and microorganisms can work on breaking down the mulch, adding its nutrients to the soil, mixing in the applied compost, and building soil structure. If the soil is not insulated when the temperatures get very cold or overly warm, worms will dive down deep in the soil to find more moderate temperatures and microorganisms will go dormant, meaning they can’t work to improve your soil.
What to Do: In the Orchard
In the orchard this is the time to clean up the orchard and improve the soil just like in the garden, but how you do that is a bit different. You want to clean up any branches, fallen or rotten fruit from the orchard and get rid of it to prevent the spread of disease and pests that could be overwintering.
It is also good practice to protect the trunks of trees and shrubs if possible. The bark of fruit trees is quite high in sugars, in comparison to other trees. This high sugar content makes them the preferred bark for rodents to chew on in the winter when food can be hard to come by for voles and rabbits. The chewing on the bark damages the trees, can lead to disease, and if severe enough, can even kill the tree. So we recommend putting trunk wraps around every fruit tree and any shrubs that you can get trunk wraps around. We recommend putting these on in early November and then taking them off in April. We do not recommend leaving them on all year because they can encourage pests in the summer.
Just like in the garden this is a great time to improve the soil in your orchard. For the orchard, the best option is to add a few inches of compost around the plants. Top the compost with several inches of wood chips. Make sure to amend and mulch the soil in a 3’ diameter ring around the trunk of the plant. It’s also important not to have the compost or wood chips touch the bark of the trunk.
What Not to Do
Although it can be tempting to cut down everything, it’s not recommended that you cut down plants outside of the vegetable garden. The stems of plants, especially native perennials, are important overwintering and egg-laying sites for native insects. So to protect and encourage native pollinators and beneficial insects, leave these plants alone this fall. Instead, clean up these plants in late spring once other things have started growing and these insects have emerged from their winter homes.