Putting the garden to bed means getting the garden ready to survive unharmed through the non-growing season as well as to prepare the garden for early productivity as soon as growing season comes again.
This saying is probably used more in temperate zones than tropical although even gardens in areas without cold need some sort of preparation and rotation of annual crops.
I’ll deal with what I know, gardening in an area with four seasons, where annuals come and go in one year. Putting the perennial garden to bed will be another node.
The further north one lives the more important these preparations become. The growing season is short and spending time in spring doing ground preparation instead of actual planting is a waste. Plus, many areas experience very wet springs and while planting can be accomplished; preparation of beds is impossible while the ground is soggy.
So, prime in the “putting the garden to bed” list of priorities is getting the ground ready. Personally I like to have raised beds for my vegetable/herb and cutting garden. They drain off the above-mentioned sogginess quickly and are easy to manage. I just build 4 – 6 inch piles of dirt by digging out paths but some folks prefer more permanent perimeters made of wood.
In the fall old plants should be removed. Throw them in the trash if diseased or full of really persistent seeds (like tomatoes, pumpkins or cucumbers) and compost the rest. Sometimes this step is not done with plants that are especially valuable as winter shelter or food for wildlife. They can be left in the ground.
Amend your soil with organic matter, maybe using your own well rotted compost. The more the merrier is the best rule of thumb. It is doubtful you will use too much. In general it is a waste of your money to buy topsoil or garden soil, just add more organic matter to the soil you have. If you truly do not have enough soil and need to buy some; remember buyer beware. Purchased “top soil” is usually very poor stuff, full of weed seed and without much organic matter. You will still want to add organic matter to it as well.
Rake the beds level or leave them with a slightly angled pitch to help drainage but avoid letting them end up with a gully in the middle where puddles will accumulate.
Now give the bed a blanket of some sort. My preferred blanket is more compost. It doesn’t have to be well-rotted compost, newly mixed grass clippings and leaves will do just fine and will rot in place. Or it may be an organic mulch. Use enough to make a layer at least 4 – 6 inches deep. These “blankets” give the vast underground sea of life some food on the surface and a reason to stick around and do their thing. Worms eating compost all winter will yield lovely dirt by spring. The blanket will also prevent winter weeds from germinating.
If you don’t use an organic blanket you still need something to minimize weeds. Agricultural weed retarding fabric or newspapers (black and white sections only) both let rain through but minimize weeds. Black plastic warms the ground and may allow for earlier planting in the spring but doesn’t let rain through (this can be good in some very wet areas). Newspapers should be in layers of 4 – 6 sheets and overlapped. All these things will need something to hold them in place.
In a pinch, a chemical germination retardant such as “Preen” can be used alone even if you have no cover for the ground. (Or one could actually weed but I don't like that option in winter.) Covers are most important where erosion is likely.
In some areas a winter crop may be grown. In my area (zone 7) spinach, garlic and pansies planted in late September or early October will start to grow then languish through the cold months only to jump to life with a vengeance at the first sign of spring. They all should be mulched once germinated with a thin layer of pine straw or other light weight mulch like salt hay. Build the mulch layer up more and more as the baby plants grow. Cover *very* lightly with pine straw or evergreen branches once freezing weather arrives. These fall planted crops will yield earlier and more abundantly over all than their spring planted equivalents.
Some crops can be left in the ground and harvested during the winter. Many root crops and crucifers are good this way. It is said that Kale, turnips and brussel sprouts aren't really at their best until they have been frozen once or twice.
Another strategy is to plant a cover crop. This helps to smother out perenial weeds and adds organic matter to the soil. Some cover crops can even pull deeply buried nutrients up to the upper layers of the soil where they will be more available to later crops. Other cover crops add nitrogen to the soil from the air through a process known as nitrogen fixation. Cover crops are best used in areas that will be planted past the early wet spring and/or in soil depleted of nutrients. Cover crops are meant to be dug into the ground before they go to seed. The ground is then left fallow while the new organic matter rots in place or another cover crop is quickly planted if weeds are still a problem.
Oh, I almost forgot the paths...Well they aren't as important as the beds but they do grow weeds which steal the water during the dry season and then go to seed and spread. They also get your feet muddy in spring so it is probably best to also deal with your paths. If you have raised beds the mulch/compost option can also be used to fill the paths. If you use permanent perimeters around your raised beds the paths can be planted in grass (leave room for the lawn mower) or covered in sand, stone or decking material (use a weed barrier under these). Stepping stones and/or wooden planks and a bit of judicious cultivation to control the weeds also works. But get your plan in place when putting the garden to bed as you will be too busy to deal with paths in the spring.
The best garden starts with good soil and fall is a good time to prepare it. The details can vary.
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