How to put your garden to bed for the winter – Bowen Island Undercurrent

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Ready to hang up your rake? Before you walk away from your vegetable garden this year, we have outlined some steps for putting your ‘beds to bed’ that will make your garden a lot healthier and more resilient.  

The tips we share here, and with volunteers at Grafton Agricultural Commons, come from the emerging field of regenerative agriculture. This approach is promoted by researchers and organic farmers as the best method for restoring healthy soil and sequestering carbon.

The five principles of regenerative agriculture are: 
Limit disturbances to the soil
Keep the soil covered - with mulch or cover crops
Build and support biodiversity
Keep living roots in the soil as long as possible
Integrate animals

Cover crops add much-needed diversity to the soil, which improves soil fertility and makes your food crops more nutritious and abundant. Seeding them at the end of the season to create a living mulch will keep the plant and microbe relationships going over the winter. This activity helps to maintain soil structure and store carbon.  

Steps for putting your garden to bed 

Pull back any mulch that is on top of the soil (wood chips, straw, leaves, etc.).  

Leave any green plants or cover crops that are still growing (e.g., hairy vetch, radish, kale) in the ground. All living plants feed the microbes in the soil. Nasturtiums and other plants that you want to self-seed can be left in place.

Remove plant material that has finished producing and you don’t want (weeds, seeds, stalks, and leaves). 

Cut all your finished veggies at the soil level, leaving the root of the plant in place.  

Pull out all the weeds that will grow back from their roots (grass, dandelions, dock, blackberry). If you are in doubt about what type the weed plant is, take it all out, including the roots.

Set weed roots aside (you can dry them thoroughly then add them to your compost, or put them into a compostable weed bag for municipal pick up). 

Cut the above-ground parts of weeds and vegetable stalks and leaves into one-to-two-inch lengths and reserve them in a bucket for later. You may also chop up the growing tips of plants like squash, leaving the older, larger fruits to mature.  

Scatter a diversity of winter cover crop seeds over the bed: barley, winter wheat, field peas, and fava beans, for instance. The larger beans and peas can be pushed into the soil just a bit. Hairy vetch and alyssum can also be planted at the ends or the middle of long beds, and “scratched” into the soil using your fingers. (They both easily self-seed.) Another option is corn salad, which makes a great winter cover crop and is also edible. 

Mustard and daikon radish can be sown in late fall too -- if planted sparingly -- one or two in a small box garden, no more. Both grow into large plants. Daikon sends a tap root that can break up compacted soil and mustard attracts pollinators, suppresses weeds, and kills unwanted nematodes, but too much can hinder the growth of other crops.  

We have learned that mustard contains glucosinolate, which can be toxic to other plants if it is present in sufficient quantity. If mustard is planted too densely along with other cover crops, it can inhibit their growth.  

If you have plants, such as tomatoes, that are still producing, pull away the mulch or straw and seed cover crops under the bushes. Later, after you have harvested all the tomatoes, the plants can be cut back at the level of the soil, leaving their roots in the ground.

If needed, you can water your beds before (or after) placing seeds on the soil. Spread your cut-up plants on top of the soil and seeds. They will decompose over the winter and feed the soil.  Finally, cover the bed with at least a couple of inches of straw, or use leaves and then straw, so that the leaves don’t blow away before the cover crops grow.

For future reference, Bowen Island Food Resilience Society (BIFS) has just launched a website where you can find useful information like this throughout the year: bowenfoodresilience.ca. To reach us directly, please email us at [email protected]

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