Putting the garden to bed: 3 steps to help your field rest well

Planting cover crops is one way to put your garden to bed
Early October at Good Heart: cover crops grow between late season salad greens

It’s early October and the fall rains have settled in this week, replenishing the land after a hot, dry summer.  As the days shorten and cool, we’re preparing the garden for winter’s rest.

We shoot to have all our storage crops harvested by October 15 at the latest, giving us one last window to cover crop the beds before the cold really sets in and puts the breaks on growth.  

Even if you’re ready to call it quits on the garden and cozy up with some tea by the woodstove, you’ll thank yourself come spring if you take a few simple steps to put the garden to bed.

Putting the garden to bed

Re-shaping beds before winter ensures they’ll withstand spring rains and decreases the work you need to do come spring.

As you prepare your garden for winter, here are a few important steps to take:

1. Covered soil is better than uncovered soil:

Just like children want to be tucked in at night, the garden wants a blanket, too.  Bare soil can lead to erosion come snow melt and spring rains. Seed cover crops to hold the soil in place and add organic matter.  Read more about how to choose the right cover crop here.

Allow certain crops that won’t be harvested anymore to remain in the field.  For example, after we get our last cut of baby mustard greens for the season, instead of pulling the plants we leave them to act as a cover crop. *Not all crops should stay in the field.  See below for what you should take out.

Apply organic straw to any beds that are harvested too late for a cover crop.  The straw will act as cover and can add nitrogen to the soil as it breaks down over the winter and early spring.  Come spring, it will act as an early weed suppressant.

2. Do the work of preparing beds for planting now:

Broadfork, cover crop or turn in and cover beds with crop debris, which will break down into organic matter throughout the winter.  

An easy way to do this is by mowing the crops—we use a flail mower attachment on our BCS.  If you have a small garden, you can do this by pulling the plants and chopping them with the end of a shovel.  

Adding compost to garden beds in the fall is another way to jump-start your spring planting.  Spread compost and seed cover crop directly into it, or cover it with straw to keep it in place.  Come spring, rake the straw or cover crop off and you’ll have an instant planting-ready bed.

3. Create new space by sheet mulching

One of the easiest ways to open new space for your garden is by sheet mulching it in the fall.  This method allows you to create more garden space without tilling or plowing—all you need is cardboard, compost, and mulch.

Lay down cardboard over your determined area, being sure to overlap the edges by 6”.  Cover the cardboard with 2” of compost or manure, and cover that with 2” of straw, grass clippings, or leaves.  

Let this all break down over the winter and early spring.  It will be ready to plant into within a year. Learn more about sheet mulching here.

Crops to take out of the field

Some crops carry higher pest and disease pressure, and because pests like leek moth and cucumber beetles can overwinter in crop debris, it’s better to pull it out of the field and compost it than leave it on your beds, where those pests will be ready to repopulate come spring.

Alliums: onions, leeks, shallots

Here in the Northeast, we’re dealing with a relatively new pest called the Leek Moth.  Because we don’t spray any chemicals in our fields, the best way to manage leek moth is to keep them out with row cover.  

We did notice minimal damage from leek moth this year, so we’re being extra careful to take all allium debris out of the field.  That means instead of chopping leek tops in the field and letting them compost on the beds, we take the full plant back to the wash station to clean, and then compost any debris.  

Brassicas: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower

Brassicas are the target of pests like cabbage moth and swede midge (another recent arrival to the Northeast).  Swede midge loves when you leave brassicas in the field post-harvest—they’ll lay their eggs in the side shoots that emerge after harvesting the main broccoli head, and proliferate quickly.  

Since Swede Midge relies on living plant tissue to feed on and reproduce, you can reduce—or at least control—the swede midge population by removing brassicas from the garden soon after harvest.  This can be done either by mowing the crop with a flail mower, or for smaller plantings, pulling the plants and chopping the greens and shoots with a shovel, then composting them.

{Read more about Swede Midge on Cornell University’s website}

Once the garden is put to bed, you can rest well knowing that the garden is, too.  So put on that tea kettle and cozy up with a good book.

Looking for a recommendation?  Check out the best books for organic gardeners and farmers here:

The Best Books for the Organic Farmer & Gardener, part 1

The Best Books for the Organic Farmer & Gardener, part 2

1 thought on “Putting the garden to bed: 3 steps to help your field rest well”

  1. Pingback: 5 Steps to Keep Critters Out of Your Winter Garden - The Good Heart Life

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