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Goodnight, garden: Putting our gardens to bed for the winter is simpler than you think

Written by Pat James, GFN Community Garden Manager

Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on 11/2/23

Some gardeners may think their summer gardening isn’t done until the soil is weeded and raked bare before the snow flies. For them, putting the garden to bed is more about tidiness and less about garden health. But the bare-ground approach isn’t good for the soil. Winter winds and spring rains can strip away topsoil, leaving a garden bed less fertile and less supportive of the organisms that contribute to plant and soil health.

When Europeans colonized North America, the topsoil here was over a foot and a half deep. Indigenous farmers had maintained the health of the soil for centuries. Now, we measure topsoil in inches instead of feet. So one way to think about end-of-season gardening is to focus on protecting those inches, and gradually adding to them season after season.

The July flooding of the Grow Food Northampton farm reinforced for us the Indigenous wisdom of using protective ways to maintain topsoil in farms and gardens. Despite the feet of water that flowed over our 320 garden plots for several hours, we lost very little topsoil. Instead, protected by no-till methods, mulch, compost, and even weed cover, the topsoil remained in place.

Flood remediation since July has meant removing flood-affected food crops, adding compost, and seeding cover crops of oats, field peas, hairy vetch, or winter rye. These cover crop plants germinate quickly, and serve to increase soil organic matter and improve soil fertility. They increase the ability of soil to retain moisture, prevent erosion, limit nutrient runoff, reduce soil compaction, and can even help suppress some pests. So instead of going into the winter months with bare ground, the Community Garden has a rather spring-like look to it with plot after plot of lush green cover-cropped health.

Come spring, those crops can be dug in or raked away according to the gardener’s preference. The cover crops will have done their work to preserve and fortify the soil for another season of growing food and flowers.

Not all home gardeners will want to use cover crops, and there is another good alternative: leaves! In my old neighborhood outside of Philadelphia, I was known as the leaf thief because I “stole” bagged leaves from my neighbors’ curbsides to cover my garden beds. I left my own lawn full of leaves.

Leaf cover is a great way to increase the fertility of lawns and to protect the beneficial insects that overwinter in the leaf duff. According to the Xerxes Society, “At the end of summer, mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter. An extra thick layer of leaves is welcome protection from the elements. There are so many animals that live in leaves: spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and more — that support the chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians that rely on these insects for food.” So let’s stop thinking of them as “dead” leaves, and instead see them as habitat and as the winter home for critters that help keep a garden healthy all year.

In the spring, the leaves can be raked away, or, better yet, left on soil to continue to break down into compost. A nice, thick layer of leaves will prevent weeds from germinating, and rain and soil organisms will break down the leaves to make their nutrients available to your garden.

So by eliminating the fall tasks of stripping garden beds bare and raking leaves, you’re building healthy soil and saving your back from work that isn’t all that useful anyway. You can continue a leisurely approach to gardening in the spring by switching to no-till methods.

Until I learned a little soil science during my training with Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners, it hadn’t occurred to me that the soil had structure, and that the structure was an important element in growing a healthy garden. In fact, I rather enjoyed the blank slate of my newly, but incorrectly double-dug garden beds. And after all that work, I wondered why my lovely bare garden beds were covered with weed sprouts in a few days. Correct double-digging loosens the soil and moves over just a few inches, leaving the layers intact. It barely disturbs weed seed hiding too deeply in the soil to germinate. My incorrect method involved turning the soil over, and turning myself into a human rototiller. Neither my back nor the soil benefited, but the weeds loved it!

At the GFN Organic Community Garden, we encourage low-till methods like correct double-digging, and no-till methods that involve no disturbance below the soil surface. Instead of digging down, we build up using various organic mulches like leaves, woodchips, cardboard, and newspaper that uses soy-based inks that don’t harm the soil (such as this Daily Hampshire Gazette you are holding in your hands). Inch by inch, we can be building back the topsoil that has been lost over the decades due to decades of non-organic growing methods that enable topsoil to wash or blow away.

This is important for another reason. At a recent showing of the award-winning documentary on regenerative agriculture, “Kiss The Ground,” co-sponsored by Grow Food Northampton and Haydenville Congregational Church, we learned that it is possible to mitigate the climate crisis by increasing our soil’s ability to capture and retain carbon. (“Kiss The Ground” is available on Netflix and for free showings by schools and others committed to reversing the climate crisis.)

So putting your gardens to bed for the season can be as simple as gently covering them with cover crop seed, tucking them in with a blanket of leaves, and letting nature do her work. We can save our backs from scraping the ground bare this fall, and save them again by avoiding harsh tilling and digging methods in the spring. And while we’re saving our own backs, we’re also helping the planet heal. That should help us all sleep better!

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