Winter garden prep ensures a fertile spring havest

Putting the Beds to Bed

by Remy Tumin

Putting the Beds to Bed

Lauren Carelli

On a recent fall afternoon, oak bluffs resident Paul Jackson was in the midst of rototilling his back garden. With the motor roaring, the corn stalks that had grown as high as an elephant’s eye were trimmed down and turned over in the soil, the bushes of summer squash that had been overflowing with blooms earlier in the summer were pulled out, and all that remained was a small row of carrots and peppers.

Paul has been gardening for more than 50 years, much of that time at his Ocean Heights home. With time comes experience, and one of the greatest lessons he’s learned is not how to combat weeds or what type of lettuce does best in Oak Bluffs, but something you’d rather not think about in the heat of August: if you don’t prepare for winter, you’re in trouble.

“Everything is making seeds right now,” Paul says. “It’s going to fall on the ground and it’s going to be that much worse in the spring.”

His solution is simple—take out all of the vegetation and weeds in your garden, rototill your soil to its maximum depth and seed a cover crop of winter rye; in two weeks a lush green blanket should cover the soil. The winter rye increases the nutrient content in the soil through the root structure established over the winter, adding humus to the ground. Not only does it add but it also keeps in place topsoil Paul worked years to maintain.

“You’re preparing your garden as well as yourself,” Paul says. “Gardening does not stop, it goes through the whole winter.” He’ll leave in a small crop of carrots over the winter and cover them with tarp; everything else that worked so hard to produce so much this summer must come out.

Lisa Fisher of Stannard Farms in West Tisbury agrees. “Get all of the junk out,” she says. “Chop all the leftover veggies up and put them in your compost,” which, she adds, should be tossed a few times during the winter. This makes certain the temperature heats up to 150°F at least once to kill off all the pathogens that could transfer diseases from one season to the next.

Mike Saunier, owner of Heather Gardens in West Tisbury, says fall is also a smart time to plant spring bulbs. Mike says to soak your beds thoroughly before the first frost comes, and give them a good mulching. “Raking leaves is important to get them out of beds because they change the pH [level] of the bed,” he says. “It makes it too acidic if you leave them in and it composts and rots.”

Raking leaves and cleaning out beds applies to both vegetable gardens and perennial gardens. Mike suggests cutting back tired and spent-looking perennials and edging perennial beds.

Pruning shrubs and buddleia (butterfly bush) can also help prevent winter damage, as well as wrapping up magnolias in burlap to stave off damage from heavy snow and ice. Edging, feeding (a fertilizer such as Plant-tone and Holly-tone), and topping the soil off with a layer of fresh manure should provide an extra boost of nutrients it will need in winter months.

Paul, out in his garden on one fall afternoon, before returning to his tilling, plucked the last of the peaches left on the tree and then, directly after, picked the season’s first apples. This was all while enjoying the cooler weather and ease of sun on his face.

“It’s unbelievable what you can get out of a piece of ground,” Paul says.