Just a week ago the hillside was alight in orange, yellow, and red.
Maples, birches, and ash loudly announcing autumn. Now those leaves are falling to the ground, and its the pines and hemlocks that stand out, their green amidst bare gray limbs and the last brassy orange still hanging onto deciduous branches.
It’s another reminder that winter is coming, and it’s time to put the garden and farm fields to bed.
While you’re pulling crops, prepping beds, seeding cover crops, and laying straw, don’t forget about the areas around the field. Those spots where leaves pile up and grass grows tall are perfect winter homes for critters (ahem, rodents) that will sneak into the greenhouse to eat your winter greens.
So as you’re cleaning up the fields, take these 5 preventative steps to keep critters out of your winter garden:
Do one last mow around the yard and crop field.
Leaf piles create cozy homes for rodents, so don’t let them pile up next to greenhouses or cold frames. Come spring, matted leaves can also impede perennial and lawn growth.
Instead of raking leaves, mow them. This helps them break down into the soil, acting as compost for the lawn. For any piles you do rake up, add them to the compost pile along with other garden debris.
Pull or mow crops that have gone to seed.
This ties into putting the garden to bed, but I say it again here because it includes flowers. And it’s painful for me to say goodbye to the flowers. Even when most are dropping seeds and providing perfect cover for field mice and voles, some are still blooming—and I want all the blooms I can get!
Still, by mid-October it’s only a matter of time before frost sets in, so get the loppers out and cut them down. Alternatively, you can pull them or mow them.
Since we grew our flowers in landscape fabric, I cut them down with loppers, lined them up in the pathway next to their bed, and then used the flail mower on our walk-behind BCS tractor to mow them and leave their remains as green manure to work back into the soil.
Remove Plastic mulch and landscape fabric from the fields.
Plastic mulch and landscape fabric help create weed-free growing areas during the summer, but come winter they provide the perfect insulated environment for rodents. Pull it all out, fold it up, and store it for use next season. Just don’t store it outside next to growing structures—this could inadvertently create a cozy home for critters to hang out right next to your overwintered greens.
Mow/Weed Whack Borders around Hoop Houses, Greenhouses, and Cold Frames
If you’re overwintering crops in a heated or unheated structure, this step is super important. Don’t give critters any hiding spots. Mow the areas around structures, and use a weed whacker to get close to the borders.
Along with cleaning up the borders, take a look around and clean up any piles of row cover, plastic, seedling trays, or what have you.
Leave wild spaces where critters can live as they should…away from your garden and crop field.
If you have pasture around your crop fields like we do, allow some wild spaces for field mice and voles to live in as they should. When brush hogging or mowing, leave strips unmowed where critters can take cover over winter.
These strips also act as pollinator homes and windbreaks for winter winds and snowdrifts. Plus, if and when voles do try to eat the spinach in the hoop house, you won’t feel so bad when you set the traps, because you did give them a perfectly wild alternative.
(I can hear some of you feeling bad for the voles when I say “set the traps.” Farming and gardening is about setting boundaries with the wild critters. If we want to harvest what we sow, be firm in those boundaries.
Tell the critters ahead of time where they’re welcome and where they’re not, and stay true to your word. It’s a matter of fresh spinach in January for you or for the rodents. Personally, I prefer it for me and our customers, and I give you permission to do the same).
Once the fields and garden beds are tidied up and ready for winter, you can rest well, too. Put on some tea, kick your feet up, and dream of winter spinach.
What do you do to get ready for winter? Do you have any tips and tricks…or more questions on putting the garden to bed? Let me know in a comment below.