By Steve Guntli
The weather’s getting colder, which means it’s time to tuck your garden in for the winter; but if you’re hoping for a great harvest next year, you may want to invest a bit more effort in your garden before you step away from it for the season. Gardens need special attention to produce the best results, and neglecting your garden’s needs can result in rotten or diseased plants by spring.
The Farmer’s Almanac lists Blaine and Birch Bay as part of Plant Hardiness Zone 8, meaning the average minimum temperature is between 10 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Whatcom County isn’t particularly susceptible to harsh winter freezes, but it does happen occasionally, and the dips in temperature can ruin a garden if not properly prepared.
The best way to preserve a garden through the winter is by cutting down any perennial plants all the way down to ground level, then laying a 6-inch layer of mulch over the soil. This will preserve the bulbs through the cold season, while also preventing rodents from nesting in the soil.
Plants that have grown brown and diseased should be disposed of in the trash, while healthier foliage can be composted and reused as fertilizer when the weather gets warmer.
Plant spring-blooming perennials in late October or early November, just ahead of any winter frosts. You can protect the new bulbs from the elements using mulch made from evergreen boughs. More tender bulbs, like dahlias and gladiolas, should be dug up and moved indoors for the winter.
One late-fall nuisance, leaves, can actually prove to be a valuable asset to your garden if planned properly. Better Homes and Gardens suggests converting those old leaves into an effective soil conditioner called “leaf mold.” Simply gather your yard’s shredded leaves into a pile, enclose them in an open container like chicken wire, and let the natural processes of decomposition do their work. By spring, the leaf pile should have decomposed to a sufficient level to mix in with low-quality soil. The nutrients in the leaves will improve the texture of the soil, and the leaves will encourage earthworms, which snack on the leaf mold and leave nutrient-rich droppings behind.
Cutting back your garden in the fall isn’t just important for the health of next year’s plants, it’s an essential part of keeping your garden sanitary. Leaving old plant debris provides a spawning ground for insects, mold and harmful spores that will lay dormant until the spring blossoms begin to poke out of the soil.
While winter gardening does require a certain degree of cutting back, some flowers and vegetables thrive in colder weather. Garlic is a particularly hardy veggie that actually produces its biggest cloves when planted in late October or early November, according to Washington gardening blog UprisingOrganics.com.
Garlic is also a low-maintenance plant, usually requiring just a thin layer of mulch to insulate it against the elements. Unless it’s an unusually dry winter, the garlic should get all the moisture it needs from the rain. Shoots should start to appear in December or January, and the garlic will be ready for harvesting by mid-July.
Winter rye is another crop that does exceptionally well in the cold. Not only does the cereal grain thrive in cold temperatures, it’s an excellent example of a “cover crop,” which means that its deep roots and strong blades can actually protect the rest of your garden against the elements.
Winter rye can withstand temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and can grow in temperatures as low as 33 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the University of Vermont. And if baking breads with your eventual crop of the cereal grain isn’t to your liking, the rye can be used as excellent winter mulch for strawberries, and can suppress weeds in your vegetable beds.
For more tips on sustaining your garden through the winter, visit bit.ly/1tdHSkA.