Preparing Your Garden for Winter

Any seasoned farmer or gardener will tell you this is the perfect time to start tending to your growing spaces for success in your next growing season - here's how!

By Justina Thompson — December 9, 2022

Preparing Your Garden for Winter

Whether you're chatting with loved ones back home, have a connection to a local community garden, or are a part of a gardening space at school, there's a good chance shared knowledge around preparing garden space for the winter could set you up for better success! Stay tuned for human lessons about rest seasons as well!

In the context of growing food, when winter comes around, we often think of everything being dried up or snowed over. Not often do folks think about extra things to plant or tend to their garden beds once the days are the shortest of the year and the frost has fallen over. However, any seasoned farmer or gardener will tell you this is the perfect time to start tending to your growing spaces for success in your next growing season-here's how!


Towards the end of a growing season, your first step will be harvesting out all of your beds. If you have an abundant harvest and aren't sure you'll be able to eat or share it all before it goes bad, think about some varied food preservation methods! This can range from freezing to dehydrating, but make the most of your harvest! You deserve it! Once you've harvested fruits and greens from your beds, rather than pulling whole plants from the ground, grab a pair of clippers or lopers from the tool shed and chop them at the base instead!

The soil's microbiome is alive and well, and pulling plants, and their root systems are super disruptive to the soil. Leaving the root system intact at the end of a planting season allows the life around the roots to adjust slowly, and the roots will decompose into the soil, leaving added nutrients behind for the next growing season. Year after year, this approach to building the soil in your growing areas rather than stripping it will be made for fertile and healthy growing conditions!


Mulching is the next step after you harvest to prepare your garden for a great next growing season. You can use a few different types of organic materials, such as salt hay and wood chips. Some growers will even use what they didn't harvest as mulch! This may look like taking down a kale plant's stem and small leaves (by chopping it at the base!) And laying it down on the bed to decompose. Because this part of the plant is no longer attached to its root system, it won't continue to grow or take nutrients from the soil, nor does it need anything!

Then just like the root systems of the plants, it will slowly decompose and give nutrients back into the soil. While salt hay and wood chips will also break down back into the soil, they offer different nutrient compositions. Mulching over the harvested garden bed will prevent the soil from being bare for an entire season, giving it some warmth and preservation for life within! This insulation will be extremely helpful when it comes time for the soil to warm up for growing in the Spring!

Cover Crops

While you can plant cover crops in mulched beds, if you didn't mulch, planting cover crops is the next best thing you can do! Cover crops are, as they sound, something you plan to provide coverage to the soil! An abundance of the same crop can be planted, and some seed companies sell cover crop mixes! Common seeds used for the cover crops are winter rye, crimson clover, alfalfa, vetch, ryegrass, and field peas! These are chosen specifically because of hardiness and ability to last through the cold months without much need and attention.

Some even produce edible material! While rye takes a lot of processing steps to turn into forms like rye bread, knowing that you can grow one of its fundamental ingredients in your garden's off-season is still a flex. Once the Spring comes back around, crimson clover is just starting to grow flower heads which can be harvested and steeped as tea! With a light floral taste and a bright pink glow, this is another garden flex that is sure to impress at the next dorm gathering.

When the garden is ready to be planted for the Spring but still filled with luscious cover crops, these can also be chopped at the base and placed (or even folded over) into the bed as more mulch for a healthy garden season! The main deciding factor between mulching in the bed directly or 'harvesting' cover crops for your compost will depend on how much insulation the soil has at that point in the season. The ideal soil temperature for spring crops like beans to thrive is around 65 degrees, and if the winter's cold can't be released, there may be a delayed start to your growing season. Growers' intuition builds with time, but you can always incorporate test patches in your growing spaces to see what the plants like best and learn the nuances of your growing zone.

Row Covers

If you still need to catch onto the drift, it IS possible to grow food in the winter! The first step is choosing crops known for their hardiness, similar to the cover crops with shorter growing seasons, so you don't have to harvest too deep into the frost. Many greens or members of the brassica plant family have bred species that are cold tolerant. Root vegetables, like carrots, get sweeter once the cold soil sets in. They are delicious when harvested in winter and early Spring!

The next best tool for growing food in winter is row cover! Row cover is typically available in rolls of varying sheet thickness and can lay over garden beds with supporting hoops. Heavy-duty row covers can provide up to 10 degrees of frost protection and support a healthy winter growing season! A lighter row cover can be used early in winter to protect any new seedlings or delicate produce from pests!

Although humans aren't plants, we can always take away lessons from nature. In reflecting on preparations of our gardens for the winter months: what can you do to prepare yourself for your next season of rest or dormancy?

Justina Thompson

Justina Thompson

Justina "Farmer J" Thompson is the Farm Education and Volunteer Manager at Urban Creators, Philadelphia, PA. Justina intentionally attended school in Philadelphia so she could “connect her passion and experience to the ongoing environmental justice work in the area.” As a speaker, educational curriculum designer, program leader, and community organizer, Justina possesses extensive knowledge on urban farming inspired to work in the field of environmental justice from a young age.
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