How To Close Down Your Vegetable Garden for the Winter

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While fall winds down, there's still some garden winterization to do. Here's how to handle your final harvest, plus tips for cleaning up and preparing for next year.

We winterize our houses and cars, so why not winterize our garden as well?

The truth is, most of us do it without really thinking about it. Every time you rake the lawn or harvest your last bushel of tomatoes before frost, you’re taking a few cursory steps toward winterizing your garden.

But there’s more to it. Here’s why it’s important to winterize a vegetable garden, what tools you’ll need and how to actually do it.

Vegetable Garden Winterization 101

Why Winterize a Garden?

Garden winterization is just good housekeeping. It looks better than a tangled mess of dead plants, plus it cuts down on the spread of pests and diseases. If you mix your edibles and ornamentals together, then you’ll appreciate garden winterization for a different reason: It could mean the difference between life and death for some perennials.

What Tools Are Needed?

When you’re ready to winterize your garden, these are the most important tools to have on hand:

    • Hand pruners to clip off thick-stemmed produce, like peppers.
    • Shovel to dig up root vegetables and dig leaves into the soil.
    • Chipper/shredder to shred leaves.
    • Wheelbarrow to move plant debris out of the garden.
    • Rake for cleanup and to spread leaves and compost.

How to Winterize Your Vegetable Garden

Follow these steps and you’ll be ahead of the game in the spring.

  1. Harvest vegetables. This, of course, depends on the weather so keep an eye on the forecast. When there’s a light frost due, you can save some of your plants by covering them at night. This may buy you a couple of weeks of extra gardening time. You also can take potted vegetables and herbs to an attached garage to keep them safe. Tomatoes harvested early, in anticipation of a frost, should turn color as long as they’ve reached the green mature stage (look for faint yellow or pink hues on the shoulders). Place them in a single layer in an uncovered box at indoor temperatures.
  2. Dispose of debris. Once a hard freeze (25 to 27 F) kills your crop, remove the dead plant debris and put it in the trash. You don’t want it in the garden, where it can harbor insect eggs or disease. Don’t put it in your compost pile either, because chances are the pile won’t heat up enough to kill any pathogens.
  3. Dig leaves into soil. This is more work, but gardeners can attest to how it helps the soil in the long run. Mixing leaves into the soil speeds decomposition and aerates the soil. One way to do this is to dig a trench eight to 12 inches deep, line it with leaves, then cover with soil. Next spring, plant your rows adjacent to the amended soil. Then in fall, dig leaves into the harvested rows and leave the amended soil untilled in anticipation of planting the following spring.
  4. Cover soil. It’s been said that nature abhors bare soil. That’s why it created weeds for quick cover during the growing season and falling leaves for protection over the winter months. You can follow nature’s lead in several ways:
    • Spread compost. Really. You can spread compost any time because it makes a great moisture-protecting mulch during the growing season and a great erosion-preventing mulch during the winter.
    • Spread leaves. Shredded leaves are preferred because they’re not as apt to blow away. It’s a good idea to lay some undisturbed leaves, too, because they offer an overwintering spot for butterfly larvae and eggs.
  5. Sow a cover crop. Covering soil with plants is a good alternative to leaves. It involves growing plants such as clover, barley, millet and winter rye for a short while before turning them over to replenish the soil and improve its texture. Those plants sprout quickly and grow fast, so the soil has protection before winter sets in.
  6. Protect plants. During the summer you protected your vegetables from animal browsing. As you head into winter, it is more likely you’ll need to protect hardy vegetables from the weather. Hardy plants such as spinach will survive even under a blanket of snow, although they’ll certainly stop growing. Root vegetables and plants such as kale and broccoli can keep going into the low 20s F if you protect them with a floating row cover, essentially a miniature hoop house that acts as a greenhouse.
  7. Plant. Mid to late fall is the time to sow garlic, which will grow in spring and be ready to harvest next summer. You might also get a quick crop of radishes to mature if you have a cold frame or floating row cover. Fall is also a good time to plant raspberries and blackberries, making sure to mound the soil around their base to keep them from frost heaving. Speaking of which, frost heaving is a serious concern in cold-winter areas with newly planted perennials. So if you mix your edibles and ornamentals together, make sure the garden is well mulched going into winter.
  8. Dig up root vegetables. Although the top portion will die with a freeze, the business end of root vegetables is protected underground. You can cover the plants with straw and dig up the buried portion any time the ground isn’t frozen. It’s particularly easy with sunchokes, a perennial sunflower with edible tubers, which uproots easily with its thick, rigid stems.

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.