“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all”– Stanley Horowitz
It’s been a great gardening season this year with plenty of rainfall and relatively few pest pressures. For those of us that preserve food with canning, drying, freezing and fermenting, it’s very satisfying to have abundant quantity and variety in our winter stockpile. Soon, cooking will become easier as we reach for something prepared in the summer rather than beginning with the raw fruits and vegetables.
While the season is fresh in our minds, now is the time to think about what we have observed and what things might be done differently next year. Take note of which plants grew well together, which perhaps had insufficient (or too much) sunlight, where water pooled or left the garden, which varieties were the tastiest, most productive, etc. Still on my project list is adding more capacity to my rainwater collection system.
I enjoy finding tasks to do outside during those mild autumn days. I tidy the tool shed and do a deep clean and sharpening of the tools. I check wooden handles for cracks that need sanding and apply linseed oil to preserve the wood. Metal parts get a light coat of oil to keep from rusting.
November is a good time for soil sampling. Typically soil is collected from multiple locations, mixed and then bagged for sampling at home or through a commercial lab. During the winter, you can then research best ways to amend the soil using microbial inoculants, organic liquid and/or mineral fertilizers. Flipping your compost pile one last time or burning dead branches over a weed patch can be a lot of fun!
There always seem to be a few areas of the garden that haven’t yet been “put to bed”. Remaining, nonproductive annuals and weeds can be removed to the compost pile. The beds then stiff raked to aerate and smooth. It is best not to leave the beds bare– a layer of compost can be applied followed by a light mulch of leaves or straw. This protects the bed from temperature extremes and prevents runoff of nutrients.
Perennials such as shrubs and herbs can be lightly pruned to remove diseased or broken branches. Major pruning is typically done in mid to late February. The hardiest perennials, such as the mints, can have the dead tops removed for aesthetics or left for wildlife cover. For landscape plants such as peonies, mums, etc, leave the tops to help insulate from winter cold. Roses can have the bare canes cut back to 18 in. Perennial beds should have a layer of mulch both to feed the ground and keep spring weeds down. However, do not apply mulch to the crowns of plants until after the ground has frozen as that will invite voles.
You have probably moved your temperate plants indoors by now. Generally these plants do not grow much in the winter and only need minimal water and a sunny window. (Ivy and ferns are the exception, needing a lot of water and humidity; they tend to do well in bathrooms and kitchens.) For all plants, watering once a week is usually sufficient along with occasional misting of the leaves and wiping dust off leaves so that the light can penetrate. Wilting can be a sign of overwatering just as much as a sign of dry soils! Throughout the winter, remove yellow leaves and dried up stems and trim off brown tips. Be on the lookout for whiteflies or spider mites. If you notice these, insecticidal soap (any biodegradable dish soap diluted 1:20 with water) works well to control these pests; be sure to spray the undersides of the leaves as well as the tops.
Though it’s a little late to plant spring bulbs, they will do ok if planted at their recommended soil depth, and then add a light layer of mulch. Until the ground freezes, check the moisture in bulb beds and newly planted trees and shrubs so that they do not dry out as they set roots for a vigorous spring revival. Bulbs, such as cannas and gladiola, stored for winter need to be in a lightly moistened inert material such as peat moss or coir (coconut hulls).
Our public library has a very good selection of gardening books for winter reading and, as seed catalogs begin to become available, they also provide a lot of good information there too. So grab your mug of java or cocoa or tea and get cozy!
Gigi Wahba is a devoted organic gardener with a deep interest in local foods, sustainability, health and right livelihood.