Prepare your vegetable garden for winter and spring

I have over the years learned that a little goes a long way when I prepare our vegetable garden for winter. 

What this means is that preparing for winter does not mean clearing the entire garden of leaves, debris, and organic materials.

Instead, I have learned to look to nature for clues.

We mainly grow herbs and vegetables in pots, containers, grow bags, and raised garden beds.

Some of our garden beds are dug at ground level and others are built as raised containers.

Here in this article, I will cover 4 things you need to do when winter is around the corner. But we do not stop there, we will also look at some of the vegetables you should plant already now for an earlier harvest next season.

1. Caring for the garden and your tools

As the growing season comes to an end trees, bushes and plants start dropping their leaves leaving a colorful mess behind.

But where you may see a mess you need to think of plant food and mulch.

Do not remove all fallen leaves but leave some to cover the root system of your perennial plants and bushes. This added layer of protection will provide an extra layer of insulation on those cold winter days.

And even better, the leaves and other organic matter you leave behind will decompose and provide a well-needed injection of nutrients and organic matter come springtime.

Leaves on walk paths or other areas can on the other hand be raked in a pile and used as mulch when we look after our soil later on in the article.

A less fun job is to look after our equipment, tools, pots, and containers. I do not particularly enjoy this part of preparing my vegetable garden for winter. But I have learned the hard way that looking after tools, pots, and containers will save me time and money come springtime.

2. Look after your soil

After a long year of yielding harvest after harvest, it is now time for our soil to rest and build up strength for spring.

Dig over or cover the soil

I have read a lot about how to best look after the soil in our vegetable gardens. And where some experts say we should dig over new areas, most agree that it is better to cover the soil with mulch and organic matter and quite simply let nature work its magic. 

And it does make sense to observe nature where we can and learn from what happens all around us. After all, who digs over the soil in nature? Exactly, no one. Organic matter is left to decompose and microorganisms work to keep the soil healthy.

Fallen leaves create a layer of insulation and work great as mulch
Leaves insulate against the cold and work great as a layer of mulch

So what do I do? Cover or dig over?

I actually do both, depending on how the vegetable garden was built.

Most of our garden beds are dug into the ground. I simply remove weeds and cover the whole area with mulch from my cold compost or use fallen leaves gathered in the garden. 

I do use a pitchfork to gently prod the soil. But honestly, it is a “trick” I have learned to keep our lawn healthy. I do not know if it helps but it cannot hurt.

But we also have raised garden beds that are in fact containers. Here, I am responsible for the health of the entire ecosystem. And here, I do gently dig over the top 20 – 25 cm (8-10 inches) of soil and mix in compost before covering the area with mulch.

Cover crops are an alternative to covering your soil with mulch. The idea is to plant cover groups that grow into a thick layer of living mulch. You can read a great article about it here.

To summarize, you should cover your soil with mulch when preparing your vegetable garden for winter and spring. We do however also gently dig over soil in containers to mix in compost before covering.

3. Give your compost some love

This is also a great time to spend some time looking after your compost. And here we can all agree that it is good practice to dig over your compost a couple of times every year. 

You should take the time to dig the compost over and take a good look inside before it freezes. 

You want your compost to be moist but not wet. The living organisms that live in your compost break down the compost for you and they will not survive if you let the compost dry out. 

Diggin over your compost will also help aerate the compost and help keep the process going.

If your compost is too dry you need to add water. If the compost on the other hand is too wet you should add shredded cardboard, newspaper, straw, or another brown material.

A compost that is too wet will often smell and take a really long time to produce usable compost. 

If you know that winter in your region means more rain than snowfall you may want to consider adding a layer of protection on top. Build a root or simply place a layer of cardboard or even newspaper on top.

Also, clearing your garden will give you organic matter to mix into your compost to balance all that nitrogen-heavy food waste you have been adding through the year.

Remember, your compost will be happy if you balance moisture, carbon (cardboard, brown garden matter), nitrogen (grass clippings, green garden materials, fruit and vegetable scraps) and oxygen. 

4. Overwinter perennial herbs

We grow a lot of herbs year-round. Many herbs are planted and harvested many times over every season.

But then there are those lovely perennial herbs that come back to produce wonderful harvests every year. And when winter is around the corner they need a bit of attention to be ready for the coming season.

Perennial herbs have different needs and frankly speaking it is never guaranteed that a herb will survive when left outdoors.

Thyme is a woody perennial herb and does not like wet roots
This thyme plant is one of many perennial herbs that will be moved inside for winter

I have had perennial herbs survive under snow one year to not make it the next due to a wet winter with too much rain.

The safest bet is of course to overwinter your perennial herbs in a pot or container indoors. Simply dig up the plant, plant it in a pot with well-drained soil and move the plant indoors.

Perennial herbs in our vegetable garden

We grow and overwinter 10 different types of perennial herbs.

  1. Thyme
  2. Rosemary
  3. French tarragon and Russian tarragon
  4. Sage
  5. Lavender
  6. Oregano
  7. Parsley
  8. Mint and Peppermint
  9. Sorrel
  10. Chives

As a rule, I never cut back our perennial herbs for winter. I let the plants prepare for winter at their own pace. Instead, I wait for spring to arrive to cut back my perennial herbs to stimulate new growth.

Should you water your herbs? The answer is yes but not often if you keep the plants indoors. 

I do however make sure to cater to their needs depending on their characteristics.

The woody perennial herbs

Thyme, tarragon, rosemary, sage, and lavender grow thicker woody stems and as a rule, they do not want the root system to sit in wet soil. 

You need well-drained soil and if kept outdoors you need to cover the ground with straw or mulch to keep them warm and dry.

From my experience, rosemary is difficult to overwinter. It is pretty much 50/50 every year.

I always dig up and place my perennial woody herbs in pots in our conservatory. The conservatory is not heated but does offer an extra layer of protection against cold weather and rainfall. 

The soft perennial herbs

Here we have our oregano, parsley, mint, peppermint, sorrel, and chives. The soft perennials will wither during winter to come back next year as the weather warms up. 

The soft perennials will have a harder time surviving in colder climates so as always your result will vary with your grow zone and climate. 

It is always a good idea to cover the area with straw or mulch to provide a protective layer of insulation against the cold.

Bonus: Vegetables to plant before winter

It does not have to be all work when you prepare your vegetable garden for winter. After all, there are several vegetables that you could plant in October, November, or December for an earlier harvest next year.

Growing in zone 7 we plant as late as December. Check with your garden center if you are unsure but a good rule of thumb is before frost but not so early that seeds germinate and sprout first leaves before winter.

The idea behind planting seeds late is to plant and then wait for the seeds to germinate as the soil warms up next year.

And the seeds will start germinating in the ground long before you would consider your vegetable garden to be ready for another season of planting.

It may seem counterproductive but you do want the temperature to be cold. As the temperature varies from year to year I look for the high of the day to be below 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) for a week or so before planting. 

I have learned the hard way that even a couple of days of unusually warm weather in November can sprout first leaves that will be killed off as the first frost arrives. 

If you are new to planting seeds late I recommend planting seeds in intervals of 7-10 days. Take notes of temperature and conditions and learn while doing. This type of knowledge is invaluable.

One advantage and a tasty surprise

We plant seeds late in the year to get an early harvest. But the word early can mean different things. 

For example, parsnip and garlic take a long time to grow. And they will get a head start on next season when we plant late in the year. But here early harvest still means later next year.

On the other hand, we can plant winter greens, arugula, kale, and carrots and indeed get a harvest in early spring. Sometimes we plant in December but more often we start planting leafy greens in early January.

In other words, we plant vegetables early for different reasons.

Vegetables you can plant late in the year

We mostly plant vegetables late in the year that needs a long time to develop. Examples are garlic and parsnip. 

As we grow hydroponically indoors we always have greens and herbs like lettuce, arugula, basil and coriander (cilantro) year round.

But we do also enjoy planting some of the cold-weather greens like kale, corn salad, green beans, and spinach later in the year. If you plant 12 or so weeks before the first frost you will have a welcome late fall harvest.

Here is a list of 10 popular vegetables to plant late in the year when you are just itching to get started before spring comes around.

  1. Cabbage
  2. Carrot
  3. Endive
  4. Horseradish
  5. Leek
  6. Mustard Onion
  7. Parsley
  8. Radishes
  9. Spinach
  10. Turnip
Do label what you plant where as you will have forgotten come spring. And not all seeds may have germinated when you start preparing to plant come spring next year.

Summary preparing the vegetable garden for winter

So there you have it. It does not have to be more complicated than

  1. Clearing the garden and looking after tools and equipment
  2. Giving your soil some well-needed attention and care
  3. Turn over, inspect, and winter-safe your compost

And then there is of course the bonus of planting vegetables late in the year for the next growing season.

Finally, I always take notes of what I grew where before I put my vegetable garden to bed. 

I use these notes as I plan my garden and prepare our vegetable garden for winter and the next growing season.

When you rotate your vegetables you can help prevent the continuous build-up of pests and disease in the soil as well as protect the soil from getting depleted of the nutrients that a specific plant needs. 

You can read more about crop rotation in this excellent article.

Helpful sources:
https://extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden-news/prepare-your-vegetable-garden-winter

https://extension.umn.edu/how-manage-soil-and-nutrients-home-gardens/cover-crops-and-green-manures

http://compost.css.cornell.edu/chemistry.html

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants, and garden vegetables. For the past two years, he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.