Getting the garden ready for winter

*A repost from another blogging venture of mine
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Three things to remember when getting your garden ready for winter:

  1. Remove old/diseased/rotted material
  2. Plant a cover crop
  3. Do whatever you can…every little bit helps in the spring

Even with unseasonably warm temperatures yesterday and the mercury in the 70’s, there also happens to be snow in the forecast for this weekend. Classic Vermont. What’s that saying? I think it goes, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. It’ll change.” Like it or not, in many areas of the country, the gardening season is coming to an end and if you haven’t prepped your garden for winter yet, it’s time to do it.

I recently had the privilege of visiting Meg Canonica of horse (and people) powered Fern Ridge Farm to learn how to get a garden ready for the snow and cold that winter is soon to bring us. It was a gray day that had already showered us with a bit of spotty rainfall and it felt like sunset was close as I finally found my way up the dirt road to Meg and the hillside farm that she and her husband call home.

Growing up in Indiana, Meg was exposed to the large scale farming of soybeans and corn. She wasn’t thinking about agriculture as a career when she matriculated at Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts work college in Asheville, North Carolina in pursuit of a degree in Outdoor Education. After attending a class in sustainable agriculture, however, Meg began to rethink her future plans. She began working on the college’s farm crew, raising beef and pork, and managing the marketing of the farm’s pastured beef.

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Although it’s several years later and following stints as an intern on various farms from Colorado and California to Maine and Vermont, the rosy cheeked farmer maintains an undeniable youthfulness. Perhaps it’s her many hours spent laboring over her produce in the clean air of the Green Mountains, her playfulness with Bismarck, the youngest of the farm’s great pyrenees guard dogs who hasn’t quite gotten control of his oversized body, or simply her enthusiasm for raising healthy food in a sustainable manner. She learned early that she didn’t want to do dairy and her preference for working in the dirt rather than with livestock also became apparent. Meg currently focuses on the vegetable and berry production on the farm while Ben works with the horses, sometimes in the garden, and on raising meat, including the pigs the couple just processed a few weeks ago.

Previously producing food for her CSA (community supported agriculture) customers and at the local farmers market, Meg has now switched to providing food for the town schools, patrons of a local co-op a few towns over, and friends and neighbors. After my arrival, we sat looking over the gardens from the porch of the couple’s newly built house, its shingles still fresh and clean, the level of care and intention noted in the details such as a handmade wooden pull on a screen door or the bright but delicate green trim paint accenting the light wood and its thoughtful landscaping. As we chatted, the farm dogs alternated lounging around, drinking water loudly, and playing with a dead mouse that had became lovingly matted with saliva after Sprout, the aptly named cat, delivered it from the garden. Life on the farm.

What stage are you at right now with your garden as far as seasons go? 
We’re kind of winding down because we’ve already had a couple frosts and that’s fairly typical for this area to get frosts starting mid-September. Definitely there are other farms who have extended their season but I just don’t have the market. I have some brassicas still out there for us and the one last big farmers market and local people. Leeks or Brussels sprouts. I’ve ripped out most of my peppers and tomatoes and stuff in the hoophouse and I’m starting to think about putting the garden to bed.

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How are you going to “put the garden to bed”?
We like to not leave any exposed bare soil. Ben will take the horses through once I have ripped up most everything and we usually seed winter rye. You can’t do that too late in the season or else it doesn’t established before winter, so we try and do that by around the time we plant garlic which is usually mid October. It’s a good solid cover crop.

You can see that garden (she gestures toward a section of the garden) is seeded to buckwheat. That used to be where I planted potatoes and carrots last year. I knew I wanted to downsize this year but I didn’t want it to just be bare in case I ever wanted to use it again, I didn’t want it to grow back into weeds. Early on in the season after our last frost date I seeded that area to buckwheat in case I wanted to use that area again. I love buckwheat. It’s like the magic cover crop. It’s so easy. You can spread it with the seeder really quickly and it comes up quickly. It chokes out other weeds and then it frost kills so it probably got touched by the frost a little bit but once we get a real frost it will probably just lay down and then its easy for Ben to disc in with the horses. It adds nutrients to the soil so I plant it in little patches if I rip something out and I am not going to re-seed it to something, I’ll throw down some buckwheat and know that I am not going to have to weed that section. It feels like it’s doing something to promote the soil.

And this is something that home gardeners can and should do?
At least the buckwheat. The winter rye is a little harder to incorporate into the soil in the spring, but the buckwheat just frost kills so it will lay down and then in the spring you can fork it in and it would be a bonus nutrient for your soil.
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What are some common mistakes that people make when putting their gardens to bed for the winter?
People give up if something is diseased or it’s a particularly wet or rainy season or whatever. Maybe people give up in August and then they just leave the diseased matter out there to decompose. That’s one of the biggest things to me. I try and pick up brassica leaves that might have fungus on them, or the squash plants might have powdery mildew. I try and compost all of that. We have a poor composting system. It doesn’t actually get up to temperature where it really breaks it down so we don’t spread our vegetable matter compost back on the garden because we feel like it hasn’t actually killed the mildew or bacteria that existed on those weeds. It just kind of breaks down and stays where it is, but we do spread composted horse manure on the garden in the spring.

Same thing with tomatoes and cucumbers and stuff that has rotted. I try to really clean that up well so that maybe the disease won’t exist in the soil for the next year. I think I have had grey mold on my tomatoes for the past couple years and even though I really clean up well, I am sure it still exists in the soil in some regard. You know it’s in the hoop house which is a really controlled environment. I think this year I wasn’t using black plastic, I was using a black fabric material, and it just dawned on me that the mold spores probably live in that fabric so just being aware.

Just trying to follow things and see the path…
Yeah, the path of the pathogens. And maybe another mistake would be just giving up and not realizing that you can reseed things throughout the season, like that is my third round of carrots. So I think people get busy and tired and I hear so many times how people are like, “Oh, I gave up on it.”

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Do you have things that you will continue to grow into winter?
I would love to have been more on top of ripping some stuff out earlier in the hoop house and seeding spinach and cilantro and I still might do that. You do want it to get established and growing a little bit, and my hoop house is only one layer of plastic so it doesn’t actually offer that much extra insulation through the winter but I think I could do several layers of remay fabric over those crops. I might still try it, but I do have some kale and swiss chard that have been growing through the summer but now it’ll start to thrive in there and that’s about it. I leave my Brussels sprouts. They are one thing I don’t rip out. I clean up the leaves that have fallen, but you can harvest brussels sprouts so late in the season that sometimes the ground freezes.

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And do they do the same thing as carrots where they actually are sweeter after a frost and cold weather?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know if that is personal opinion, but I definitely think so. And same with kale. It’s so much better this time of year. And maybe to me it just feels like a fall crop, but those are things that I leave in.

So what if someone does just give up? What should they do in the spring?
Well, probably just wallow through all the semi-decomposed stuff. I would definitely put some composted manure down. That’s what we always start with in the spring. Throwing that down and then just hope that those diseases that irked you the year before won’t come back to haunt you. It’s never so bad that you can’t try again.

They could also, if it’s available to them, let that spot rest for a year and they could clear off the decomposed leaves and stuff from the previous season and seed buckwheat and just leave it like I have done with our potato patch and then start a new patch. But I know that most people don’t have that space available to them.

Would you say that if people did have issues in previous seasons they should plant things in different areas but still within their existing garden plot?
Yeah. Definitely. You can hope that it doesn’t spread throughout. And the unfortunate thing is that some things, like tomatoes, like to grow in the same place every year so if you get blight it’s hard because you typically want to keep them in the same place. But I definitely try to alternate other crops around my garden. And also noticing different soil structure and try to tailor which crops you put where.

Any other mistakes?
Maybe just people being so rigid that, if they can’t do any part of it, they just don’t do anything at all. You know any little steps you can take to help yourself out in the spring is better than doing nothing.

Is there anything different that you would do with flower versus vegetable spaces as far as getting them ready for winter?
I am definitely not an expert on flowers, on annuals in particular and I am just starting to delve into perennials. But my mother in law is a master gardener and she’s really helpful in that department. But I think just dead-heading for perennials and annuals you would just rip out. It’s the same thing, just getting all the debris out and then mulching it really well is helpful for the plants. Just giving the plants a little bit extra mulch or if we have winters with extra snow, it helps them not have so much winter kill. But, I am not an expert on flowers. I enjoy them but not an expert.

Do you have a favorite crop?
I really enjoy growing hot peppers.

I feel like peppers take forever!
They do. They do. But the hoop house is very helpful and I start my plants in early to late march so they are pretty hefty when they go in the ground, but yeah, I love growing hot peppers. I can them or pickle them for the winter. We eat a lot of those. And I feel like in general there aren’t as many diseases or pests in peppers although this year the hornworms totally devoured some of my pepper plants. They’ll eat the jalapeños. Not just the plant but the actual jalapeños, too.

You’re like, “Isn’t that hot?”
Right! “My mouth is burning right now!”

How would you describe your relationship with your garden in one sentence?
It’s ever evolving and definitely a constant source of humility and makes me always realize there is so much more to learn about everything because you’ve never truly mastered anything that has so many variables.

Fair enough. A good reminder for life in general!

After our chat, we toured the farm, met draft horses Jo and Roz, saw the onions and garlic drying up in the barn loft, poked our heads into the new root cellar in progress tucked in a basement corner near the weigh station and boxes of ready to go produce, peered into “the bumblebee” (a former industrial container that has become Meg’s garden/potting shed) and even sampled some “ever bearing” raspberries that were amazingly still producing big fruit. Before I left, Meg was kind enough to give me some cilantro and cherry tomatoes. She was the one doing me a favor and somehow I came away with a gift! Thanks, Meg!

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