Winterize the vegetable patch

In October, it is slowly time to prepare the garden for winter. In this article, the focus is on the vegetable patch. For balcony and terrace gardens, we have already prepared a guide for the cold season. We have also already taken a closer look at winterizing figs, kiwis and vines. An article devoted specifically to berry bushes in the open will follow shortly.

Why winter preparations are so important

There’s a good reason to prepare your beds now in the fall for the cooler temperatures of winter. You see, the cold half of the year is a wonderful time to prepare the soil for the next growing season. That’s the other half of the year (admittedly a simplified representation) when plants in this country grow, bloom and produce fruit before they die or go dormant for the winter. While growing, plants need lots of nutrients. Healthy, living soil is the ideal condition for plants to thrive. We can make our garden soil more valuable by, for example, sowing a green manure now, spreading a layer of mulch or even trying area composting.

This way you can also make sure that earthworms and other, much smaller soil organisms get through the winter well.

Unfortunately, you never know in advance how cold it will be, whether snowstorms will sweep across the country or whether weeks of permafrost are in the offing. So it makes sense to build a foundation now that you can adjust as needed.

A good guide for winter preparations is the specific climatic conditions at your home. Do you perhaps live on the coast or near rivers, so winters are usually quite mild? Or rather at a higher elevation, where double-digit subzero temperatures are not uncommon? In the article “The 11 winter hardiness zones: an overview” we already introduced the concept of the different winter hardiness zones. These can be subdivided even further, so that even within Europe several zones can be distinguished. In general, it can be said: in the south it is usually colder in winter than in the north and in the east colder than in the west. Exceptions are areas near bodies of water and larger cities, where it usually stays warmer in general.


Soil care in winter

The good and back-saving news: digging up is not necessary! You don’t have to “clean up” your beds in the fall, nor do you have to dig them up thoroughly, because both have significantly more disadvantages than advantages. Actually, the only positive factors are visual and the fact that the soil is loosened. However, a closer look at the structure of our garden soil is enough to see where the problem lies. Many important soil organisms depend on oxygen and therefore live in the upper layers of the soil. When digging deep, they get into deeper layers of soil where they cannot survive. If you have a very heavy soil, you should rather regularly improve it with compost or also work in additional sand. Over time, even very hard soil will become looser and finer.

Removing dead annual plants makes sense, however, if you have been struggling with diseases or pests. Also, squash and zucchini plants, for example, are quite large, so their roots won’t completely decay over the winter and may interfere in the spring when you want to replant or reseed something.

Winterize the vegetable patch
Vacant spaces in the bed can also be filled with vegetables that tolerate frost

Green manuring: Wellness for the soil

Green manures are plants that have positive effects on the soil and its inhabitants. They are sold in stores specifically as green manures, and mixtures of different seeds are also available. The best known plants are yellow mustard, winter rape and oil radish (these three belong to the same plant family); lupins, alfalfa, clover and vetches (these four belong to the same plant family); buckwheat and phacelia. But marigolds, marigolds or flax are also among the green manure plants. They bloom all summer and look great as border plantings in vegetable beds.

Depending on the variety, other advantages predominate. In general, one can state:

  • Green manure plants root through the soil, thus loosening it up and ensuring good aeration and water absorption. Microorganisms and other microorganisms thrive under these conditions.
  • The soil does not harden and nutrients are not washed out as quickly.
  • Good root penetration leads to less erosion.
  • Dense growth suppresses unwanted weeds.
  • Some plants have a deterrent effect on certain pests.
  • It’s not just below ground that there’s a lot going on, because plants attract insects with their flowers or serve as hiding places for them.
  • As the name suggests, green manure can also add important nutrients to the soil. Plants that belong to the legume family form small nodule bacteria on the roots that supply the soil with nitrogen. In addition to peas and beans, these include lupines, alfalfa, clover and vetches.

You can also sow a green manure earlier in the year. In October it is simply already too cold to sow many flowers, but most of the plants already mentioned grow quickly and are still super suitable as green manure now. Sowing late in the year also has the advantage that the plants can simply be left over the winter, as the frozen and dead plant parts form a good mulch layer. You can still sow the following seeds now:

  • Wherever there were no cabbage plants or radishes before, you can sow yellow mustard, winter rape or oil radish. These belong to the same plant family as cabbage plants and radishes, which can promote the spread of diseases or pests.
  • As a successor to kohlrabi, radish & Co, plants from the legume family are suitable, i.e. lupins, alfalfa etc.. Again, you should not sow these where you have previously grown peas and beans.
  • Phacelia and buckwheat can be sown anywhere and will still grow quickly in the fall.

Before sowing a green manure, it is a good idea to remove annual plants, weed thoroughly and loosen the soil, for example by digging into the soil with a digging fork instead of digging it up with a spade.

Instead of a scarf and hat: mulching protects against the cold

You can also do your soil some good by giving it a thick layer of mulch now in the fall. As we know, mulching is a great idea all year round. While in the summer it’s more about protecting against drying out and suppressing weeds, in the winter it’s about protecting from the cold, both plants and soil organisms. In this sense, a green manure can also be called a mulch layer, since it is organic material that is used to cover the soil.

There are many different materials you can use for mulching. In the fall, it is a good idea to use leaves, as they are available in abundance. Leaves from fruit trees are especially good. Leaves decompose better if they have been shredded beforehand, but you can also mix them with fresh lawn clippings, for example.

It often only gets really cold in January and February. Then a Christmas tree can get a second appearance by placing the branches as a protective layer on your flower beds or around shrubs. You can also add fir greenery on top of other mulch materials to weigh them down.

A special form of mulching is area composting. This involves covering the beds with either semi-mature compost or even accumulated kitchen scraps, which then slowly decompose. Since this doesn’t look as nice, you can also cover the material with leaves, straw or lawn clippings. The soil is supplied with a lot of nutrients by this method and is therefore particularly suitable for beds in which strong growers such as pumpkins or tomatoes are to grow next year. You should keep this in mind, as soil that is too rich in nutrients is unfavorable for weak growers such as lettuces.

You can remove the mulch layer in the spring as needed and compost it if you need the space or prefer to start the garden year with a fresh and thinner layer of mulch. On the other hand, if the material is already heavily rotted, you can also work it into the soil.