If you can, allow part of your garden to rest for the winter. Late fall is a great time to rebuild soil fertility by adding compost or piling on manure. Some types of manure, like poultry droppings, require a 90-day waiting period before you plant, making November and December the perfect months to incorporate it for your early spring garden. No matter what you do with your soil, at the very least, do not let it remain bare in the winter months. The simplest method of protection is to cover the ground with spoiled hay or straw. The mulch will help prevent vital nutrients from leaching out of the soil and will add organic matter to your garden as it decomposes over the winter.
Many of us continue to grow vegetables into the fall and winter. Mustard greens, collards, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, arugula and onions are all thriving at the St. Francis Community Garden right now. Here in South Carolina, we don’t have to resort to heated hoop houses or greenhouses to extend our gardening season through the winter and keep our plants alive. There are several steps we can take, however, to extend the life of our less hardy greens and to keep our plants growing for a while longer.
Using heavy straw mulch helps. You can often avoid damage from a light frost by covering your less hardy greens with the straw, then pulling it back off the plants after the air has warmed (mid-morning). Covering your plants with row covers or plastic draped over hoops or lines also helps protect plants from frost. The covers we use in the garden should add about 4 degrees of frost protection and will keep the ambient temperatures just warm enough to bolster the greens’ growth until the coldest part of the winter (December and January).
If you decide to use a row cover, whether it is fiber or plastic, make sure that you keep the material off the plants to ensure frost protection.
Instead of row covers, some gardeners use milk jugs or similar containers to cover plants. Cut the bottom out of the milk container and place it over the plant. Take the cap off the jug when the daytime temperatures hit the high 30’s, and put it back on as the temperatures cool in the evening. If the temperatures move above 50, remove the jug entirely during the day.
Another thing to be aware of is that you can create a “spa” environment for pests when sheltering your plants. They like season protection, too. Check your plants for cabbage worms and related pests before putting on a cover. If you notice new damage after the covers have been placed over the garden, patrol again. For natural slug (and some caterpillar) control, put sweet gum balls around the bases of the plants. Tender-bodied pests don’t like to crawl over the prickly seed pods. Just be sure to pull up any sweet gum volunteers quickly next spring.
Speaking of spring, we'll cover seed companies and plant variety choices in the next blog. Catalogs come out in December and January; it won't be long before we'll be planning our spring gardens!