Blanketing the Garden for a Long Winter’s Slumber

December 14, 2010

While there’s still a little harvesting yet in store, for the most part the garden has wound down and settled in for rest until spring. To protect and enrich the soil I utilize a number of techniques to cover the earth and keep it nice and cozy through a long and frigid winter.

I use everything from organic materials like straw, compost, and shredded leaves, to inorganic devices such as floating row fabrics, cold frames, and greenhouse films. There’s also my favorite; a living mulch of hardy vegetation or cover crops. They all have various benefits to offer when it comes to gardening during winter, protecting and enriching the soil, or helping to control the weed population.

Here’s a rundown of how I’m covering the garden this winter:

Straw – You may already know that straw is my material of choice for lining the pathways between the raised beds to keep things tidy and passable regardless of the weather conditions. This year I also piled on a thick layer to mulch the garlic and potato onion bed that will protect the cloves until they send up top growth in the spring.

Leaves – A favorite of the worms in my garden, if you listen closely you can hear them moving as they come to the surface and drag bits of shredded leaves down below ground. Whatever is left of the leaf layer when it’s time to replant the bed next season will be turned under with a digging fork to condition and enrich the soil.

Row Covers – There are a variety of fabric materials available for use in the home garden these days. I’ve been trialing a longer lasting woven style and use it to provide a little protection and a more hospitable microclimate to plants as the season’s transition from summer to fall or winter to spring. The use of a frame is optional but beneficial.

Cold Frames – I like to use portable cold frames that can be moved into the garden and shifted from one bed to another as needed. This one is protecting a patch of kale, mustard, and arugula to extend the harvest and produce fresh green deeper into the winter season. Straw and leaves are being used to mulch inside and around the perimeter.

Low Tunnels – I’m experimenting with double walled low tunnels this year. The inner wall consists of PVC hoops forming a frame and supporting a woven row cover fabric. The outer wall uses bent galvanized tubing that is covered by a clear greenhouse film. The hope is that this will provide more insulation and generate enough warmth to melt any snow loads.

Cover Crops – My favorite winter cover crop is rye which will hold and protect the soil throughout the season. Next spring the grasses can be turned under before they seed in order to nourish the soil, or an alternative is to cut the rye grass and use it for composting. Just be aware that the longer you let it grow, the more of a challenge it will become to turn under.

Hardy Vegetation – The best way to blanket and protect the soil is to keep something useful growing on it, and what is more useful than something that you can eat? And while we’re at it why not grow something that will yield a fall harvest, protect the soil over the winter months, and then return to produce additional harvests as spring arrives? That’s just what hardy leafy greens will bring to the table!

Snowfall – the most natural garden cover of all is one that I’m in no rush have applied to the ground, sidewalks, and streets. Well it does insulate the garden, protect plants, and even replenish the ground water, but it sure doesn’t do much to inspire dreams of an early spring. So far there has been nothing but a few flurries here in Central PA, but we all know what’s lurking just around the corner!

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  • Yes snow is a great natural mulch but it does have the habit of stopping you getting at those winter crops. Like you I prefer straw for the paths and torn leaves for my beds.

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  • I have covered my garden in the past with leaves, but read that leaves draw nitrogen from the soil Also if you till them in they draw nitrogen in order to break down. What do you think.

    Thank you
    Bob Emery

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Bob, the leaves will temporarily tie up nitrogen and other nutrients as the soil organisms work to break down and digest the leaves. That’s why it’s a good idea to fully compost them before adding them to the garden during the growing season. But I do use leaves as a mulch around plants sometimes and it is fine to shred and apply them during the fall when the garden isn’t active and the leaves can start to break down throughout the winter months.

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