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A Winter Gardening Checklist
In many gardens, fall and winter are seasons of neglect. Once the fall harvest is in, many gardeners just leave the ground fallow and wait for spring, but this time of year is important for laying the groundwork of a successful growing season. The time to prepare the ground with cover crops that improve the soil is while winter is in full swing. It's also the right time to amend the soil and blend in compost.
Clover, rye, and vetch are popular cover crops. As they grow, these plants enrich the soil. Cover crops are also known as “green manures” because they provide natural fertilizer. Legumes such as vetch and lima beans fix nitrogen in the ground, right at the place where roots use it. Plant these crops in the late fall for the best results.
Compost can also work wonders during the winter. Unfinished compost generates it's own heat (up to 160 degrees) as soil bacteria break down organic matter. You can put a compost pile or bottomless composter on top of your garden to protect bulbs and perennial plants from frost. When the compost is finished, the resulting humus is a great soil amendment. Humus is light and fluffy, which helps it absorb moisture and aerate the ground. Humus is also rich in nutrients and helpful bacteria. When spring comes around, the areas where you worked compost into the ground will experience rapid root growth and boosted health.
Spreading out a layer of mulch over your garden will also protect your garden soil from the elements and will help any winter plants growing in your garden. Shredded bark or wood chips help to insulate your plants’ roots, and dark colored mulch will soak up heat from the sun. Additionally, mulch will smother winter weeds. A 3 to 4 inch layer of organic mulch is all it takes.
The growing season continues year round in some states and there's no reason to slack off. Hawaii, California, and Florida all produce a variety of crops through the winter months. If you live in a warm climate, bear in mind that cold weather can stress certain plants and increase the risk of disease, so it's important to grow different plants during the winter than you normally grow during the summer. Growing different plants will not only purge the soil of pathogens (because they no longer have a host to feed on), but it will also help avoid soil depletion if you choose plants that use a different blend of nutrients. If you grow vegetables in the summer, try growing ornamentals and herbs in the winter. In colder areas, you can extend the growing season with greenhouses, cloches, and cold frames. Mobile planters work too - they allow you to move plants indoors on especially cold days.
Winter is also a good time to do maintenance on your garden tools. Before you store your tools, spray them off with water to remove potentially corrosive chemicals and dirt. Scrub them with a metal wire brush, and dry the tools before storing them. You should oil any moving parts on tools such as pruners and garden loppers. Check the manual for your mowers and mechanical tools, and make sure to do the yearly maintenance (ie; sharpening, tightening bolts, replacing consumable parts).
While you wait for the weather to change, use your spare time to dream a bit. Think of the plants that you're going to grow next year, and sketch out plans. A few hours of forethought can save days of hard work when spring rolls around.