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Saturday, November 28, 2015

How To Prep Your Vegetable And Ornamental Garden Beds For Winter #Gardening #WinterPrep #Veg

How To Prep Your Vegetable And Ornamental Garden Beds For Winter #Gardening #WinterPrep #Veg

Vegetable Garden 2015

Usually before I write anything I have an exact length of how long I'd like it to be. Same goes for time spent doing something like chores, etc. I say that to say that I have no idea how long this post will be just as I underestimated how long it would take for me to complete my winter garden cleanup.

What were we looking at here? That picture above was at the very beginning of the season. In the back to the far left you can see the container in which I grow corn. To the left of the main garden those colorful green and red leaves are baby lettuce and kale. To the far right against the wall are where I put the broccoli and beans. The white hoops are where the tomatoes grew for support. To give you a rundown of the things I grew and what I'm cleaning up, I will say that it was a lot. And though the success rate varied on each plant, I consider the overall season a success as roughly 65% of the things I planted grew well. So, the list:

Zone 6 (some websites do say 5 but Burpees says 6), Northern Ohio.

Vegetable/Fruit Grown                                                   Success Rate
Tomatoes: Two beefsteak varieties                                 Medium High
Tomatoes: Two Cherry varieties                                     Medium High
Tomatoes: Grape variety                                                High
Peppers: Hot                                                                 High
Peppers: Sweet                                                             Medium High
Pumpkins: Pie and Canning variety                                 High
Watermelons: Oblong shaped                                        Low (1)
Watermelons: Globe-shaped or small                             None
Beans: String                                                                 Low
Beans: Canning and Shelling                                           Medium
Corn: Sweet                                                                  Low (side note: eaten by birds)
Cantaloupe                                                                    None
Honeydew                                                                     Low (1)
Potatoes: White                                                              None
Potatoes: Sweet, Orange                                                Low (4 small edible ones)
Cabbage:                                                                       None (side note: didn't intend on growing)
Strawberries:                                                                 Medium High
Onions: Green (shallots)                                                Medium High (side note: grown in house container)
Onions: Sweet Bulbs                                                    None
Onions: Red                                                                 None
Kale: Normal Green                                                     High
Kale: Red                                                                    Medium Low
Collard Greens:                                                           Medium Low
Salad Greens: Mesclun Mix                                         Medium Low
Salad Greens: Red                                                      Medium Low
Salad Greens: Heirloom Mix                                       Medium Low
Broccoli: Normal                                                        Low (side note: No heads harvested)
Broccoli: Raabi                                                           Low (side note: No heads harvested)
Cauliflower                                                                 Low (side note: One head left to harvest)
Eggplant                                                                     Low

Foo! That was a lot. I think that's all I tried to grow--actually, as I was writing this sentence I remembered the eggplant. I really don't have a lot of space I grow everything in so it is always an achievement for me to have grown nearly any food. Sorry I didn't list the proper names of everything I grew. That would have just made the list even longer as I grew three varieties of corn, two varieties of grape tomatoes, three varieties of hot peppers, both bell and banana sweet peppers, two varieties of broccoli and cauliflower, two varieties of potatoes a slew of different melons and the list goes on. Next spring I hope to be more scientific with everything and properly journal it all for you guys so you know what exactly I'm growing up here.

Also, I should expound upon the side notes. I've been veggie gardening (#gardening) for a few years now. I grow everything from seed with the exception of potatoes. I usually buy those from the store and wait until they start sprouting stems and leaves, then pluck them off and plant. I also start most of my stuff inside my house during the winter months. I start a little late, usually March but this year started even later in late April because I was so busy with finishing my epic serial novel Unrequited. I'll do another post in the spring on why you should grow from seed if you grow at all, but suffice it to say right now that you have more control and it's cheaper.

With that said, having grown from seed plenty before I can tell you that the salad greens are usually the easiest to grow along with the collard greens which absolutely take off each year. I also usually get broccoli pretty early or pretty late in the season but didn't get any this year. It's on the list as a low success rate because I harvested some of the leaves, which are edible and mixed them with the collard greens when we had them boiled for Thanksgiving. They have much of the same taste/nutrient value (they're from a similar genus) and most people can't tell the difference. They're also cold hardy as our the collards and kale so I may get another harvest yet.

That's My Pest/Friend Bunny

The greens, broccoli and cauliflower all suffered I think because I overmulched last winter with leaves. More on leaves later, but suffice it to say that the ground was not happy about the woody covering. As they decompose, woody things suck out the nitrogen needed to make everything green and leaf abundant. I also usually grow my broccoli in a row that the previous year was used for beans. The beans next to them in the same bed also didn't do well as the strings sat low. They, I'm suspecting were eaten by our recent infestation of rabbits across the town. They're literally everywhere and I had one living amongst the bigger vegetation in my garden. I named him Bunny. I don't have to always be creative in life.

I also had a huge problem with birds for the first time this year as they mercilessly tore into my cornstalks. I grow my corn in a container (yes, it's possible for you novices). They only got about four feet tall when the birds came over and ripped the stalks from the container and tore the container's side. Vicious arm-less creatures. They also tore through my salad greens and collards. Everything else was good. Very little insect damage to any of my plants despite the huge mosquito colony that lived within my over-flooded area. Also, while I grew a heck of a lot of strawberries, my neighbor's dog kept eating them, then when I would pick them I would forget I had them and they would sit and rot in the back of the fridge. Luckily, I stayed diligent with the tomatoes and peppers and still have two full plastic bottles of tomato puree to do with what I wish. FYI, those 16.9oz water bottles you get with your favorite brand make great containers for freezing sauces in so long as you don't drink directly from them before hand. Or do it if its only you who is going to use the sauce inside. I don't care.

The white potatoes got flooded and I accidentally cut the top off in the heat which immediately killed them. The sweet potatoes also flooded but I was able to save them by scooping out the water.

Finally, to the actual garden prep. Two things I wanted to save to overwinter for next year were my pepper plants and tomato plants. Due to an early frost way back at the end of September (seriously, 30 degree nighttime dip; in contrast, Thanksgiving was 65 degrees) the tomatoes died off before I could transplant. I did, however get to my pepper plants in time.

Hot Peppers Left to right: Bird pepper, Jalapeno Pepper

Note first that this first step is done after transplanting. To overwinter you cut all the flowers, potential buds and fruit from the plant. Then trim any leaves that point inward or look like they will cross with another branch opposite of it. Finally, you want to top off the plant by picking a leveling spot and cutting off the top most growing branch of all branches at that level. Remove about 80% of the leaves, keeping only the top most leaves, then move it inside. Again, this is after you've already dug it from the ground and re-potted it.

To re-pot it, dig it out of the ground, have a warm bucket of clean, clear water nearby, shake the dirt from the root ball, then dip the entire root ball into the water. Wiggle it around. This cleans the root ball of most unwanted house pests that may live within the soil. Make sure you do it hard enough to create as bare of a root as possible--no soil from outside.

Two Sweet Pepper Plants: Left to right, banana and sweet bell

Next, get a clean, sanitized flower pot. If you have an old one that had something in it before or you just bought a new one, you might want to wash it of any possible bacteria that could have gotten on it. Remember, this will be the plant's home for the next six months or so. It has to be healthy where it is. Finally, fill the pot with a good clean potting mix, bring the pot inside and set it in a very sunny place. If the temperature in-house is drastically hotter or cooler than the outside temps, you may want to acclimate it to the inside over the course of two weeks by bringing it in each day for two more hours than the previous day starting with two hours in the windowsill. Note that as it gets later into winter, you'll need to supplement the sunlight with a good fluorescent or halogen grow light. I usually use the ones in my basement or laundry room and they do just fine. This is the first time I'm doing this with an adult plant, so I don't know if I'll succeed throughout the winter but fingers crossed.

The same steps can be followed for tomatoes. In both cases you'll want to water at least once a week but not nearly as much as you did when they were outside. Think 1/3 to 1/4 of what you gave it then. You'll also need to feed it a nitrogen-heavy food once or twice a month to keep up leaf growth. I'm using a compost tea. When it gets time to plant it outside again, you'll switch to a more potassium and phosphorous-heavy feed to stimulate root and flower growth to prepare it for the season. Finally, you'll want to top it off every few weeks so it doesn't completely cease growing and tries to bush out more.

Practically every other vegetable is a one-time seasonal thing that cannot be saved overwinter. So what do you do with that thick broccoli stalk or the corn stalks that you couldn't eat or the dried pumpkin vines after harvesting the pumpkins? One beautiful word: Compost.

A Mixture of finished compost, coffee grounds and dead leaves

Composting is incredibly difficult and easy. If you're here reading this, I'm sure you've read/asked about compost and know of the varying ratios of browns to greens and reds and blues and all that! Look, there are two things you need in abundance for good compost: dead leaves and coffee grounds/kitchen scraps. The best way to get coffee grounds is to call your local Starbucks or other coffeehouse about an hour before they close and ask them if they have any used ones from the day for your garden. Most (not all) will gladly give them to you because it's their waste and they'd rather you put it to good use than just throw it out.

Collect leaves either from the leaf litter of your own property in the fall or that of your surrounding neighbors. Note that you will need ten times more leaves than you will coffee grounds. Since I was thinking about putting in a small orchard next year, I needed leaves not just for my compost but also for mulch for all of my garden beds. So, instead of collecting leaves week after week which I did last year and it took two and a half weeks to collect all the leaves I needed, I called my local service department and asked for them to dump some leaves on my property during their free leaf pick-up rounds.

Seriously It Took Up A Third Of The Lawn. LEAVES!

It took some massaging and getting on people to properly do their job, but I ended up with a lot of leaves; in fact, probably too much. You see, the deal originally was for me to get one of the smaller truckloads about half the size of the pile you see. That pile by the way may look small perspective-wise, however, it stood no less than six feet tall and was as wide as a pick-up truck and longer than two mid-sized cars parked back to back. It was literally tons of leaves. So, stuck with the task of moving them, I had to take three full days off last week from writing just to get them around the property to where they needed to go, eating up all my free time.

A few before and after pictures, this is what the berm of small trees covering the back edge of my property used to look like.
You can't even see the trees from the weeds and it doesn't look tall either.

And this is it with the leaf mulch. It should be noted that it stands roughly two and a half feet high.
The picture is from farther away, however you can clearly see the difference in definition and height. 

These are the two front gardens filled with leaves as their mulch.

Makes a great looking mulch! 

I should note two things here. First is that the leaves will eventually breakdown all on their own. Many people get chopped-up trees to mulch their gardens. While that works, it means that a tree has been cut down or has naturally died and was shredded to get what you see. Leaves, however, are not only almost as nutrient dense as the tree bark, but readily fall each year. The nutrients the tree's roots pull from the ground go directly to the leaves. It is only right that it should go back into the ground. Also, I am of the opinion that the bigger the tree, the deeper or wider the roots, thusly the more nutrients they've pulled. So get as many leaves from tall healthy trees as possible.

That bush in the lower left may be infected from the leaves or has lost too much nitrogen too fast. 

That leads to the second note which is the cautious danger I am taking with the leaf delivery. With the entire truck filled with different leaves from many different trees throughout the surrounding neighborhood, I have no idea from where over half of these leaves came. Sure, I walk the neighborhood everyday, however, some of the trees could have been diseased or dying and have yet to show signs of such distress, but contain their sickness within the leaves. So, while this is also a problem inherent but not often thought of when it concerns wood chips or regular bark mulch, it is an even bigger problem with leaves as they get everywhere and break down much faster into the soil.

Because of this potential problem, what I did was make a one-layer compost bed for the established ornamental gardens. The leaves do not lay directly on the soil preventing them from not only causing soil-borne pathogens from spreading but also from them robbing the soil of more nitrogen than they put out. However, beneath them is a mixed layer of dead grass and coffee grounds. Experienced gardeners know that those pull nitrogen from the soil too during their breakdown and come spring I do expect for my plants not to be as green; however, they are also rich sources of nitrogen and organic food matter for the worms and other beneficial soil organisms. With it remaining warm for the next few days and wet, many of those organisms will get to work on breaking that food down before the ground freezes. The wet leaves will act as an insulating barrier to keep them closer to the surface soil. I expect the leaves to be here for the next two seasons to create a golden to brown mulch and keep weeds down. I tried this last year on a side bed with nothing but a bush growing in it and it worked.

Also, some things can survive the winter but may need mulching. Kale and collard greens and many beets can survive through the winter so long as you cut off all their leaves. They do not need to be mulched and I found that if you mulch them with leaves, it can suck out more nitrogen than it has time to break down. Leave them bare and they'll do fine. Strawberries, however, should be mulched over with a small layer of chopped up leaves. The leaves will allow them to get some carbon dioxide during the winter while protecting them from the harshness of the wind and frost. Do Not Bring Them Inside!

Not only do you need leaves but chopped-up micro leaves are the best which is where the truck came in nicely. See, the smaller the leaf, the better it looks as a mulch, the more water it allows through a layer, and the quicker it breaks down. This is very important for compost as you want your compost pile to break down as quickly as possible before the spring planting season. The vacuum on the leaf collector trucks suck the leaves so fast that many of the crispier ones break into a fine grain perfect for compost. If you collect the leaves yourself you can mulch them smaller by mowing over a row of them a few times with your lawn mower, or dumping them into a cleaned-out garbage pale and whacking them with your weed whacker. I've been told this works well. Here I used the lawn mower.

Make a pile about two widths of the lawn mower and go around twice the same direction with your side blower attachment. It should be noted that you have to use a mulching mower or you'll have a tougher time getting across the leaves. The third time go down the opposite side, blowing all the mulched leaves back into the original row. This not only chops the leaves but mixes them well with some grass. Next, put the collection bag attachment on and go through as many times as needed to collect all of the leaves. Whatever's left embedded in the soil you can let sit and it will break down within nine months without help.

Branches at the bottom allow better air circulation, needed for bacteria.
To construct the pile, I start with a good base of leaves. I like to start over top of a hole with branches strewn across it like a drawbridge. You can see them a little if you look closely in the picture. Using a large snow shovel is easiest to measure out the perfect ratio. I do twenty shovelfuls of leaves to one shovel of coffee grounds and grass clippings/food scraps. Go leaves, coffee grounds, lawn clippings, leaves, coffee grounds, food scraps, leaves, coffee grounds, grass clippings, leaves, food scraps, coffee grounds, leaves. Those hesitant to put old food in because it may attract animals should know that most animals (outside of domesticated cats and dogs occasionally) don't like the smell of the coffee grounds. Putting the scraps toward the middle of the pile and making sure they are covered with ample leaves and a second layer of coffee grounds ensures they will not attract furry critters.

Putting the Coffee Grounds into the Shovel make them easier to spread evenly.

You are trying for no less than three feet by three feet by three feet (wide, length and height) and it is best to build directly on the dirt you plan to plant on the next year. Between each layer you want to wet the medium with water or leftover alcohol and pop (soda) work well too. The bacteria set to do the work live within water so they need it to start the breakdown. However, too much will make the pile soppy and not enough will not help the process.

It might not look it but that is about 3.5 feet tall. 

Once big and wide enough make sure that you spray it down once more to seal it with a liquid, poke air pockets in it with a sharp stick or whatever you can get to poke holes through it. The bacteria also need to breathe. Then you can cover it and do one of two things. Either wait until next spring to deal with it again and it'll slowly breakdown but it won't be completely ready the day you want to plant. Or, you can tend to it for the next three weeks, turning and churning it to put the outside stuff not yet composting into the inside over and over. This will help the pile heat quicker and leave you with less work in the spring. Come spring time you'll just need to rake it out and put it in the places it needs to go. I choose to cover mine and will look at it again in December when I get some time and a vacation. By that time it will be colder which can tell me if it's heated up or not. When you dig into the center of your pile you want it to be hot and near black as that is a sure sign the microbes are working. If it is cold enough outside, the pile may smoke. If it is smoking, congrats, you have a hot compost pile. Sit back and let it cook or turn it to keep it from burning.

Covering it will keep it from becoming too wet during the winter, halting the composting process.

Well, that's about all I have to share on my winter garden clean-up for now. I literally moved four tons of leaves and have everything set for a kick-butt spring. We'll see if everything is still alive or composted come April.
A clean, clear lawn. No more leaf pile.

What do you think? Was this article helpful to you and your winter garden clean-up? Do you garden at all? If so, do you ever compost or use any mulch in any of your gardens? If you veggie garden, which veg is your favorite to grow and why? Let me know in the comments below (hint: click the no comments button if you see no comments).

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Until next time, "it's all home-on-the-range and stuff around here. This is nature."

P.S. That was a quote said by a friend of mine. I am now occasionally known as farmer and the amount of food I can grow in the small bit of land I utilize for my veg garden is becoming famous... sort of. I'll think of something better next time.

P.P.S. Now that I remember it, I also grew zucchini with no success. It was a late season add so I really didn't expect it to succeed after planting it in 80 degree weather.

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