Why And How To Protect Your Garden This Winter
Alas, the cool weather of fall is signaling the end of the regular growing season. While a few cold-tolerant crops may still be hanging on, by mid-October to mid-November most varieties have stopped producing. Overnight frosts are becoming more frequent and it’s time to put the garden to bed.
It’s a pretty common thing to leave garden beds bare for the winter when there are no perennials or overwintering hardy crops. It’s funny to think of the ground as needing protection from winter weather but it’s true! Leaving garden soil bare in the winter can be damaging. Since soil fertility is directly determined by soil health, long-term success in the garden depends on your soil’s well-being! It’s your number one priority!
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE GARDEN BEDS BARE FOR THE WINTER?
In a nutshell, soils are complex ecosystems full of living organisms. When soils are left bare for the winter, beneficial habitat is damaged and the structure of the soil breaks down.
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Bare soil is at risk of being stripped of moisture by strong winds, washing out in heavy rains, and becoming overladen with weeds. Without organic matter on the surface to consume, beneficial populations of fungi, bacteria, and insects will drop. Additionally, the lack of insulation at the surface contributes to wide temperature fluctuations. Poor soil conditions can lead to important tunneling animals like worms and moles migrating into healthier, protected areas.
Without all this life to keep it healthy, the soil’s matrix of silt, clay, sand, and organic matter breaks down and becomes compacted.
What about perennials and overwintering hardy crops?
Without winter protection, perennials and overwintering crops are also at risk of dying or becoming damaged. Bring tender perennials indoors for the winter. Read-on for how to protect overwintering hardy perennials.
SO HOW CAN YOU PROTECT YOUR GARDEN THIS WINTER?
Think about the way Mother Nature winterizes her gardens: Fallen leaves blanket the ground (insulation). Ground covers like clover break down to feed the soil (nutrients). Native grasses and shrubs provide food and habitat for overwintering animals (ecosystem support).
Nature hates neatness. The diversity of an ecosystem is its strength.
Try to imitate nature as best you can in your gardens. Don’t cut back your native grasses, leave your fallen leaves, and plant gardens that help beneficial insects and animals year-round.
When it’s time to pull up crops at the end of the season, top-dress with compost and then:
Using Cover Crops:
For larger areas, sow a cover crop like oats at the end of the growing season. The oats will grow quickly and stabilize the soil to prevent it from washing out in heavy rain or being stripped of moisture from the wind. Oats will also help moderate temperature fluctuations, provide essential nutrients to the soil, and habitat for overwintering animals. Oats will not survive winter and are easy to turn into the soil come spring.
Wrap perennials, shrubs, or smaller areas with burlap. Burlap is an excellent material for this type of protection because it is breathable and light. It provides enough insulation to regulate temperature fluctuations and prevent some wind burn damage on leaves and stems. Burlap will also contribute to moisture-retention in the soil and provide some shelter for overwintering insects and animals.
Pack perennials and overwintering hardy crops with straw. Straw is another excellent way to provide protection in the garden. Like burlap, it is breathable, insulating, and very useful to overwintering insects and animals.
Know Your Zone
Not all overwintering hardy perennials need protection, depending on the hardiness zone of the area. Always check the requirements for plants in your growing zone and be careful not to cover your crops too early. Give your plants time to harden off and wait until mid-October to mid-November before covering them up.
We want to thank the Kitchener Public Library and their many wonderful staff and volunteers for inviting Ontario Seed Company to partner with them on this project.