Are you new to gardening and wondering what happens to gardens in the winter? You may have heard the phrase “putting your garden to bed,” but what exactly does this mean? At the Butler Urban Farm, we just put the garden to bed, a phrase referring to preparing the garden for winter. How to put your garden to bed depends on the needs of your garden, the energy you want to put into it, and how much work you want to save yourself in the spring.
It is important to consider what to do with all the spent plants. At the Butler Urban Farm, we believe in disturbing the soil as little as possible to preserve the soil structure. Some people prefer to remove their spent plants, compost them, and add the compost back to the garden beds. We “chopped and dropped” annuals and cold sensitive perennials at the base leaving the roots intact in the ground and the foliage laying on the soil. These plants function as a free mulch. This is a great regenerative process. Despite the name “putting your garden to bed,” the garden remains active. This is the time when old plants decompose and the soil can build nutrient levels back up. The spent roots and plants protect the soil from harsh winds, return nutrients back into the soil, and provide a home for insects over the winter. However, it is recommended to remove diseased or disease prone plants such as tomatoes. Cover crops such as peas can also be planted in the fall which add nitrogen back into the soil while protecting its structure. Amending the soil in the fall will save you time in the spring and lets you get to planting right away
When preparing for the winter, it is also key to monitor temperatures in your area and plan your harvests accordingly. Make sure you check what temperatures different plants can tolerate. This is an important step if you want to avoid losing your produce that you put a lot of effort into growing. For example, carrots will survive a night of -8 C while zucchini and tomatoes will get frost damage at 0 C or below. You can save your tomatoes even if they are still green by picking them before the frost and letting them ripen by a window, or you could make some green tomato chutney. Some plants are able to overwinter in the ground, depending on their level of cold tolerance. If you want to extend the growing season, you could give your plants some cold protection by “tenting” around them with row cover or plastic. The tents function as blankets for your plants, keeping them warm, basically putting them to bed! We tented our lettuce seedlings since they were too small to pick and we wanted to let them grow a little longer. You can even bring some plants inside for the winter, so long as they are a perennial, such as peppers. Just ensure to replace the soil so you do not bring any insects into your home, and acclimatize the plants to room temperature by taking them inside for a few hours a day.
Saving your own seeds is a fantastic way to be more self-sufficient, and contribute to a strong community food system. Wait for the plant to mature, and let the seed heads dry out as much as possible on the plant before seed collecting. Then, you can harvest the seeds and store them in a paper bag to prevent mould. It is important that seeds are completely dried out before you store them in containers. You can add silica packets to the containers to be extra safe. Clean your seeds by removing the plant material encasing them and then store in a cool, dark, and dry place until you want to plant them. Most seeds will last a few years if stored properly. Plant these seeds again in the spring, share them with a neighbour, or bring them to the Kamloops Community Seed Library.
Some planting can also be done in the fall. This is a great time to plant garlic. Garlic will survive the winter and you can harvest the next year, just make sure to add lots of mulch. Planting a variety of flower bulbs will give you beautiful colours in the spring.