Winter Clean Up Time in Your Vegetable Garden!

It’s so hard to think about going outside this time of year!  The days are so short and gloomy.  Everything is so wet and any of last summer’s decaying vegetable plants can be so gross and slimy.  Sometimes the occasional rose hip is the most cheerful thing to see.rose hips

But winter clean up and maintenance will make your spring and summer so much easier in your vegetable garden, and more productive!

Have some quick and easy hot tea, coffee, or cocoa that you can whip up when you come back inside.  Try fir needle tea for a soothing and very local change of pace!  Click here to learn about fir needle tea.

Have some pretty seed catalogs lying around to inspire you.  Most seed companies have websites where you can order their catalogs.  I generally do all of my ordering online, but the colorful catalogs are nice and cheerful to flip through on dreary winter days.1956 bunton catalog

Check out these articles for some great seed suppliers –

Garden Seeds Part 1 – “Old-Time Prices, Classic Varieties, Old-Fashioned Companies.”

Garden Seeds Part 2 – “Heirloom, Organic, Specialty and Market Varieties.”

Get ready, get set…

Try to schedule just a few minutes a day for outside work.   That’s easier than thinking about tackling big projects when the wind and rain are swirling around.

An oversized lightweight jacket over a few layers underneath works better than a heavy coat.  A cotton turtleneck, rolled up to cover your throat, is a good choice to go under a sweater layer.

If you can, find some vinyl outer pants to go over sweats, thermals or jeans, that keeps the wet out.  Make sure they are big enough so that you can move easily.   They can be kind of pricy, so shop around–Discount Safety Gear has great prices on rain pants, if you don’t mind some bright colors–click here to check them out.

And find some waterproof boots that are big enough to fit over a few pairs of socks.

Find a few pairs of workable gloves, and you’re ready!  It’s best to have several cheap pairs of gloves handy.  Assume that your work gloves will get soaked, or muddy, or misplaced, or snatched away by a playful and glove

Happy and Safe in the Garden –

Try to have a backup for every tool you use.  It’s so frustrating to have one break just when you are getting your garden mojo rising.

If you are working in heavy clay soil, be careful not to disturb the soil too much when it’s wet.  If it’s overworked it will become a hard brick when it finally dries out, and then it will require more organic materials worked in, to be fluffy enough for spring and summer planting.

Also, if you are working in clay soil–be careful not to slip in the mud!  It’s slippery as ice.  Also, be careful not to twist an ankle or knee if your boot gets stuck in the mud.  Slowly and carefully work your foot loose from the wet clay.  It’s good if you can have a layer of leaves you can walk on.

When these short winter days are heavily overcast, the sun can go down without you noticing, and it can be dark before you know it.  Remind yourself to check the time and pick up your tools before the dark creeps up on you.

It’s nice to have a little flashlight available if you lose track of time, to guide you back to the house.  That’s when a lot of my slips and trips have happened.  Try to remember to turn the outside light on before dusk comes on, if you are low-tech like us and don’t have sensor lights.

So…why am I out here?

Your main goal with winter maintenance is to stop the spread of disease from one year to the next.

Perfectly healthy summer plants can turn into a soggy haven for a multitude of diseases when autumn rains begin.

You need to get the plants and leaves off the ground and, hopefully, into a burn pile.

Your biggest concern will come from tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins.  Some root crops and lettuce can also be touchy about overwintered disease.

I don’t recommend composting the following plants, (unless you’re being really scientific about temperatures): tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins.  It’s hard to get the temperature at the right level for the right amount of time to kill off all the nasty microbes.

We just wait for a good burning day.  Our pets are happy to spend a few hours hanging out with Steve at our burning area.  We use the “retention pond” that the builders scooped out when we built our house twenty years ago.  Just make sure that there’s no burn ban on, during one of our occasional inversion zones during the winter.

Canada Thistle
Canada Thistle

Although it’s tempting to try to dig out those nasty Canada thistles and other nasty tap root weeds–if you are in the heavy clay soil that attracts such monsters, you are more likely to just snap them in two underground with a shovel or spade.  That just creates more spreading roots, and then some future clay bricks from all the working the clay around the stubborn roots.canada thistle roots

Layer, layer, layer….

So if you have access to lots of nice leaves, small branches, evergreen boughs and needles and such–you can just spread them in a nice deep layer over your garden area, after you have removed any disease-prone plants.fir needles on ground

If you don’t have access to leaves on your own property, ask a nearby cemetery where they pile their leaves, and if you can have some.winter leaves

Steve still worked in Olympia for our first five years in Rochester (until 2000), so he used to stop at the Masonic Memorial Park in Tumwater on his way home and fill the back of our pickup with leaves that they had collected and piled up.  They were only too happy to let him have them.  I don’t know if that’s still their policy, but you can check any number of places that rake up masses of leaves in the fall that they can’t burn.

What kind of soil do I have?

South Thurston County has two main types of soil–the maddeningly fluffy and gritty black prairie soil from Yelm to just west of Rochester, and then the equally maddening thick, viscous, slick orangy-red clay soil that hits you as soon as you drop into the Chehalis River Valley, about a mile west of Rochester.

We have the prairie soils at our restaurant and the thick clay soils at our farm just west of Rochester, in between the Black and Chehalis Rivers.  Both are challenging to work with, until you devote yourself to working PILES of organic matter into the soil, over a course of years.  But with a little preparation, both kinds can grow some amazing vegetables.  Or you can buy top soil, if you can afford it.

Luckily, ordinary organic matter like leaves and branches free and easy enough to load up on.  Oak leaves are said to be more acidic, but we’ve never noticed a difference, especially when we mix them in with a bunch of other stuff.  A light spring dusting of cheap old ag lime and/or dolomite should balance out your pH concerns.

Some of the area’s dairy farms will share excess manure.  Spread it at least three months before you plant.  It’s not generally loaded with nutrients, but it’s a good soil conditioner and it gets the earthworms motivated.

Lots of alpacas in south Thurston County!
Lots of alpacas in south Thurston County!

Alpaca, goat, and rabbit manure make the best all around manures for fertilizing and soil conditioning.  Rabbits that have been fed alfalfa-based pellets produce super nutritious manure that’s ready made for gardens.   Check out your local 4-H clubs and community facebook pages for neighbors with excess manure.  It’s a great way to make new friends!

Steve and I always said we’d haul a bunch of those massive kelp plants that wash up on the ocean beaches back to our farm someday, but it hasn’t happened yet.  Anybody had any luck with that?

Don’t forget to look around while you work.  Watch birds fly overhead.   We have our share of eagles and hawks.  Even plain old crows are fun to watch. eagle flying

Look at the earliest swelling buds on native plants.  Trim your rose bushes and sweep away dead leaves from your ornamental bushes and perennials.   They are alive and just napping until spring comes again.

And watch each day get longer.  Before you know it, spring will be here!

–Melissa Genson

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