When the calendar flips over to the fall season many gardeners immediately hang up their gardening gloves for the year and don’t bother preparing their vegetable gardens for winter.
This is a mistake!
If you take some time in fall to prepare your vegetable garden for winter, you’ll reap the rewards the next spring with fewer weeds to battle, more healthy soil, and even some vegetables already growing early in the season.
Plus, fall is one of the most pleasant times of the year to be out in your yard basking in the cool, bright sunshine and the slower pace of life. (And as a bonus: no mosquitoes!!!)
Don’t quit the garden just yet — here’s what you should be doing to prepare your vegetable garden for winter.
5 Tasks to Prepare Your Vegetable Garden For Winter
Task #1: Clean out vegetable plant debris.
Because some pests and diseases overwinter on plant debris, it’s important to clear out dead vegetable plants. I usually wait until after my first frost to start gathering up the warm weather vegetable and flower plants like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and zinnias.
Personally, I don’t like to rush it because I always try to soak up as much greenery and colorful flowers as possible before the long and drab Wisconsin winter. Even if my plants aren’t producing much anymore I still leave them up until frost.
Once the frost hits and you’re staring a bunch of dead plants, the next step it to decide what you’re going to do with the debris.
If some of your plants succumbed to disease this year you should be careful of how you dispose of them. For example, my raspberries often suffer from cane borer. After reading about the pest I decided to put all of the old canes into my trash bin instead of composting them.
It’s not a bad idea to get rid of particularly diseased plants in the trash. If you have a hot compost pile in your yard that would be a good alternative as well.
All other non-diseased or non-pest ridden plants can be placed in your home compost area, put out for your town’s leaf collection, or taken to a yard waste composting site.
We have a large compost bin in the back corner of our yard (which we call the back 40!) and most of our plant debris goes there at the end of the season.
An added bonus of cleaning up your vegetable garden is fall is that it’s a much less disgusting task at this time of year. Once your plants go through winter they tend to get mushy and slimy come the following spring.
I don’t like being slimed during my garden clean up, so fall is definitely my choice for this reason.
Task #2: Leave some plant debris!
As an organic gardener you’ve probably discovered many interesting and unique insects, birds, and critters living in and around your garden throughout the spring, summer and fall when you’re out working in your yard.
But, don’t think with the arrival of winter all of that wildlife just disappears. No way!
Native bees and other insects like moths and butterflies might be overwintering in your garden. Migrating birds could stop over at your house looking for berries and seeds to fuel them on their long trip to their winter homes.
And you likely have some birds that will stay and make your yard their winter residence. They’ll need seeds and berries to feed upon to keep them alive during the cold months.
So, although task #1 is to clean up vegetable debris, task #2 is to leave your ornamental plants standing for the winter to provide food, cover, and protection for all of the insects and animals that co-exist with your garden.
I have a large perennial gardens bordering both of my vegetable gardens. We don’t do any clean up in these areas, we leave all of the perennials standing until spring. Not only do they provide habitat for insects, they also look so beautiful covered in snowfall throughout the winter.
This Cornell University website has a pledge you can take, cheekily called “The Lazy Gardener Pledge“, to leave some parts of your yard messy over the winter. They also break down the top seven things you can do to protect, shelter and feed the life in your garden.
Task #3: Mulch all garden beds.
As you go about your fall clean up, make sure you’re not leaving bare soil behind. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now you likely already know I always keep my soil covered, all year round in every season.
In winter this is especially important because the winter cold and winds can be tough on garden soil by drying out and even blowing away your topsoil. And in the spring the weeds start growing especially early on bare soil.
After you complete task #1, cleaning out spent plants, it’s important to lay down a thick layer of mulch to protect the soil over the winter and keep your garden neat and tidy until you can get to it next spring.
I’m a mulching evangelist! I wrote a whole post about mulching your fall garden, including the types of mulch I recommend, right here.
Task #4: Cover Plants with Row Cover.
Even though you’re tidying up your garden, you’ll want to make sure to leave any fall and winter vegetables that you’re hoping to continue to harvest from for the next few weeks and months.
Vegetables such as spinach, carrots, winter radishes, salad mix and lettuces, and perennial herbs are extremely cold hardy and will continue to live way past your first frosts.
And you can keep them going even longer if you cover them with frost protection.
Using row cover is a great way to start playing around with extending the season into the colder weather of fall and winter. By placing this thin white fabric over some of your fall vegetables you can protect them from early frosts and continue to harvest them into the holiday season.
Fresh spinach salad straight from the garden for Thanksgiving dinner? Yes, please!
With the help of row cover and greenhouse plastic in my zone 5 garden in Wisconsin, most years I harvest food in November, December, February, and March. And I live in a very harsh winter climate!
If you want to learn more about using row cover in your fall garden I break it all down for you in this article.
Task #5: Plant Garlic.
Garlic is one of the easiest, and most fun, crops to grow in the garden. It requires very little maintenance and suffers from few pests and diseases. It’s planted in late October through November in most regions and harvested the next July.
I think it’s one of the most fun garden tasks of the fall because it’s the only thing you can really plant at the end of the season in cold climates. Everything else has to wait until spring.
Planting garlic in fall is a symbolic act – you’re throwing your hat into the ring for another year. And you’ve already gotten a head start on the following season!
I’ve written a few popular posts on growing garlic:
#6: Plant bulbs for more spring color
When you live in a cold climate with a long winter you might literally jump for joy in spring when you see the first flower bulbs poking their heads through the soil. I know I do!
Every year in spring I decide that I don’t have enough spring bulbs. There’s no such thing as too many flowers at the beginning of the season, right?!
I’ve planted lots of bulbs in the perennial flower gardens that border my vegetable garden, but a few years ago I decided to plant some spring bulbs in my vegetable garden.
And I have to be honest, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!
Vegetable gardens can be kind of boring in the spring, but with the addition of some strategically placed flower bulbs they come alive with color and interest way before you start planting your vegetables.
If you want to try it yourself I share some tips and photos about using bulbs in your veggie garden in this post.
I also like hunting down and planting interesting and unique varieties of spring bulbs. I highlight five unusual bulbs to plant and give some suggestions on where to get them beyond your local big box store, which usually carries the most boring bulbs ever!
This year, don’t hang up those garden gloves before you spend a few sunny days preparing your vegetable garden for winter. Grab this task list and your garden tools and head out to get some exercise, breathe the fresh air, beautify your garden, and ensure that you’ll have a lot less work to do in the spring!
Additional Resources for Fall and Winter Gardening
FREE MINI COURSE: My how-to video series, Harvesting Fresh Veggies in the Snow, will teach you how to keep your garden harvests going all the way into the holiday season with the use of row covers, low tunnels and cold frames. I harvest from my garden 10 months of the year every season in zone 5. You can, too! Watch the FREE mini course here.
GARDEN SUPPLIES: You can find my favorite garden tools, supplies, books, and more in my Amazon storefront.