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Time for Bed | Preparing Your Vegetable Garden for Winter

Time for Bed | Preparing Your Vegetable Garden for Winter

Photo courtesy of Tatiana Ezhova.
Photo courtesy of Tatiana Ezhova.

Advice from Editor Therese Ciesinski on putting your garden to bed for the winter to protect plants, improve the soil, reduce pests and make next spring’s planting easier.

Once frost starts making a regular appearance, it’s time to tie up the vegetable garden’s loose ends. If you haven’t already done so, use a reasonably nice fall day to put your vegetable garden to bed. How? It’s easy: Clear it out and cover it up.
Start by pulling out any obviously frost-killed plants; the ones with no life left in them. The healthy ones can go into the compost or be shredded and turned back into the soil. Anything that was diseased should be put in the trash or burned.
Remove any spoiled vegetables or fruits. Pull any remaining weeds, especially the winter ones that are now popping their heads up. Take up tomato cages and other supports, clean and put them away.
I’d always rather be safe than sorry, so I pull out all my dead tomato plants and destroy them. Even if they look healthy, I don’t put them in the compost; it’s a sure bet that the plants have one kind of bacterial disease or another and my compost pile doesn’t get consistently hot enough to kill them off.
Lightly rake over empty beds to expose bugs and insect eggs that the birds will eat.
Once the ground freezes, it’s a good idea to mulch empty beds with straw, leaves—either chopped or whole, loose grass clippings or pine needles. That will keep the soil from eroding over the winter.
Plants that like the cold, such as kale, cabbages and brussel sprouts, may still be producing. No special care is needed, simply harvest and enjoy! Onions and carrots can be protected with a 6- to 8-inch layer of organic mulch (Remember to mark where you planted them so you can find them in the snow.)
Newly planted garlic should be mulched 3 to 4 inches deep.
Start thinking about crop rotation for next year: don’t plant those tomatoes in the same bed again.
Empty pots and tuck away any that might crack in the cold. And finally, clean up your tools and store them away.
How, stand back and take pleasure in the neat, clean orderliness of your sleeping vegetable garden.  Congratulate yourself for a job well done and begin dreaming about how great next year’s garden will be!
Therese Ciesinski
Therese Ciesinski, Garden Variety’s Editor-at-Large, is the longtime former editor of Organic Gardening magazine. She has won multiple awards from the Garden Writers Association and has lectured across the U.S. on gardening, horticulture and living an organic lifestyle. A New York University graduate, Therese has been a master gardener in both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. She lives in a little log cabin next to a trout stream in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, where she maintains a shade-shrouded garden. She loves roses but her sunlight-challenged property has left her trying to fall for hostas instead. She enjoys home renovation projects, travel and is a self-confessed “picker” who buys and sells antiques and vintage finds, especially industrial objects.


  1. hilarycustancegreen
    November 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I think I put my tomatoes on the compost. I’ll remember next time. Thanks.

    1. gardentherese
      November 29, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      Hi, Hilary,
      Theres’s a chance that, depending on how arid the summers are where you live, that you may not have fungal problems on your tomatoes, in which case composting the vines is fine. But in most of the country, tomatoes are prone to diseases. Remember to rotate where you plant your tomatoes next year; don’t plant them in the same plot.

  2. Mominthegarden
    November 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Hello Therese, What kind of mulch should I put on my winter bed of garlic? Also, I love composting and I have a few piles going. It has been great for my garden. I don’t put any dairy, or cooked foods in my compost. But I do live in the country, and I’m afraid rats come with the territory. What can I do (organically?) to keep the rats away. We do have a cat, but I think they might be more clever than he is! Thanks. Dana

    1. gardentherese
      November 29, 2013 at 6:08 pm

      Hi, Dana:
      It depends on just how wet your winters are. If there’s a chance that mulching could cause the cloves to rot, then skip it. Generally, straw (not hay, which has more seeds) is a good mulch for garlic, but you can use dry grass clippings, or chopped leaves. The depth of the mulch depends on how much freezing and thawing there is in your area. The more freeze/thaw, the more mulch. Don’t pack it down, leave air space, it provides insulation.
      As for rats in compost: if you are not putting meat, dairy, or cooked food or oils in your compost, and you have rats, then you may need to leave food scraps out entirely and stick with yard trimmings. I’m assuming you’ve tried burying the scraps in the center of the pile. What might also work is keeping the piles as damp as possible; don’t let them dry out or the rats might move in to live, not just dine. Good luck!

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