Well, winter is here, and this usually means the end of gardening season. While there are some plants that can survive cold weather, for most of us, we don’t expect to be doing any gardening until next year.
However, the diligent homesteader never stops working on their garden and these pays of in bountiful harvests every year while the rest of us scratch our heads and try to catch up by purchasing more fertilizer, equipment and other quick-fix solutions.
Failure to do something in the garden this winter is similar to someone neglecting to exercise during the winter and then expects to have a perfect body for the summer. Preparation for the summer starts today.
In this article, we will look at the ways in which you can not only protect your garden but ensure that it thrives during the cold season.
Outdoor Plants and Winter
Outdoor plants as you would expect are most vulnerable to the cold weather. Cold and harsh conditions normally deter us from doing what needs to be done in the garden. It is more pleasant to be reclining next to a fireplace, with a mug of coffee rather than working in cold weather.
If you want to get ahead in homesteading then you will need to put in the work outdoors. The following recommendations will guide you in what the most vital aspects are of your winter garden.
Cleaning your garden beds
After you harvest, it is important to clean up your garden beds. Dead vegetation could contain diseases and bacteria that will come back to haunt you in spring. Ensure that you dispose of vegetation that could have been diseased while adding healthy plants to your compost heap.
Here is a great video of cleaning out your beds in fall.
If you still have plants that are growing like late varieties of broccoli, ensure that you harvest with care. Since you plants growth will be slowing, your harvest intervals should be less frequent. If you do need to harvest, do it during the warmer hours of the day
The video below explains how to harvest in winter
Get a soil test
The onset of winter is the best time to get a soil test. Part of your annual winter tasks should be to check and know where your soils stand in terms of nutrients. Long ago, you had to take samples of soil from around your garden and send them off to a specialized lab. If you are an old school gardener and still do this, I would recommend you switch to a simple home soil testing kit. You can get a simple, inexpensive soil kit from Amazon.
Here is a video below demonstrating how to test your soil
A soil testing kit gives you the following advantages,
- You can test and get soil results immediately and do not need to wait for results to come back from the lab.
- You can carry out multiple tests at very little additional cost.
- There is always the possibility of your soil sample being mixed up if you decide to have it tested at a less expensive facility.
Perhaps your simplest and cheapest form of protection during the winter is water. Water plays a vital role in helping your plants survive the cold season. It had been thought that watering during cold weather is bad for plants because it will freeze in the soil, but it has been recently discovered that water actually helps generate heat in the soil.
Before your ground freezes in fall make sure, you give your water your plants thoroughly. This will allow them to store extra heat before your first frost. Fruit trees and ornaments will also benefit from the water so do not leave them out.
It is easy for your plants to wilt in the winter because the cold dry air will sap water from your plants faster than the roots can absorb it. Regular watering will allow your plants to stay healthy and to keep snow off the
Dealing with snow
Snow is heavy and cold and therefore cannot be good for you plants. Techniques the help you to deal with snow in your garden need to be employed to ensure that no damage is done to your plants. Here are some general guidelines:
- Ensure you carefully and gently shake off snow from leaves and branches to ensure that they do not succumb to the weight of the snow. Watering your plants is also a good method. Take extra care that the weight of both the water and snow do not cause damage to your plants.
- Ensure that you keep the roof of your greenhouses and cold boxes free from snow. Not only could your structure cave in from the weight, but the snow will also prevent any sunlight from getting to your plants.
- For plants that are extremely vulnerable to break and bend under the weight of snow use stakes and strings to support them. Install your stakes before the grounds freezes. To get a general idea of how to stake plants, watch the following video:
- Avoid walking around too much in your snow-covered garden. When you walk over your snow, it causes the soil beneath to become damp and this encourages bacteria and disease. Only walk in your garden when necessary and along designated pathways as you would during the growing season.
Here is a great video explaining how you can protect your garden form snow.
Also take the time to read this article on starting seeds from a snow covered garden.
Use a greenhouse
When most people think of protecting their plants from the winter a greenhouse is normally the first thing that comes to mind.
A greenhouse is one of the most effective winter protective methods, but it comes at a cost. Greenhouses are not cheap and require a good deal of time and expertise to erect.
In terms of heating, you have one of the two options
- Paraffin heater
A paraffin heater is used in greenhouses where you do not have electricity supply. Caution must be taken, as paraffin is highly flammable. Maintaining good ventilation is important because of the fumes from the paraffin. Paraffin heaters are considered more reliable in bad weather conditions in the event you have a storm and the electricity goes out. Some people decide to keep them on hand as backup to electric fan heaters.
- Electric heater fan
Electric heater fans are great because they keep the air in the greenhouse circulating. This means you will have a more even distribution of heat around your greenhouse. An even distribution of heat and air circulation also leads to fewer diseases.
Here is a great video demonstrating how this works.
Ensure to keep your greenhouse ventilated. Humidity caused by the heat could lead to fungal disease in your greenhouse. On warm winter days, be sure to open the windows to allow air to come in. Install a thermometer in your greenhouse and set the thermostat to the temperature you require your plants to grow.
Strategically place your heating to ensure that it plants that need it more are prioritized.
Use a thermostat. A thermostat will ensure that the temperature in the greenhouse remains constant and does not exceed a certain temperature.
Surprisingly, you may still have a problem with pests in the winter, namely unwanted organisms in your soil. Larger pests like winter rabbits can also cause a challenge as they can cause damage to your cold frames, greenhouses and stakes.
Here are a few things that you can do to ensure that your garden stays pest free:
Spray with winter wash
Winter wash is an organic spray that kills mites, and aphids that remain active in your garden during winter. These pests also increase the risk the spread of disease and virus in your garden.
Spraying a winter wash over the leaves and stems of your plants will ensure that these pests are taken care of before they cause further damage. In the past, people used a winter tar oil wash but this has since been banned as the tar is said to give off carcinogenic chemicals to the atmosphere that could lead to cancer.
Ensure that you spray your plants adequately with the wash and ensure you do not miss a spot. Aphids and other winter pests are known to be able to survive with even the slightest negligence on your part.
Here is a video on spraying with winter wash
Keep your scarecrow in place
While you may not have many plants in your garden during this time, it is important to remember that you will still have a few animals around during winter. If you still have chickens and other animals on your homestead, you need to continue to keep them out of the garden.
A scarecrow is an inexpensive way to protect your plants from animals.
Alternatively, you can simply get one from Amazon.
Use a Cold frame
A cold frame is similar to a greenhouse only that it is much smaller and can be used to protect plants in specific areas of your garden. Cold frames have the advantage of being light and portable so when the need arises you can move them around your garden.
Being consistent with your operation of the cold frame is essential. Allowing your plants to freeze then thaw will result in damage. Keep your cold box closed for the most part of the winter. Water your plants regularly to help them generate more heat.
You can either build or purchase a cold frame. Are a few cold frames we recommend:
A hotbed is simply a cold frame but with extra heating from either an electric or natural source. Hotbeds will help you grow plants even in the coldest weather as they allow the soil to remain warm throughout the winter. Here are the different types of hotbeds
- Natural hotbed
A natural hotbed can be made by mixing a heat source with and what is known as a growing medium.
A heat source is normally made from manure. As the manure decomposes in the soil, it generates heat. This heat will, in turn, warm up the soil and allow your plants to keep growing. Ensure that your manure is slightly compacted so it can evenly release heat throughout the cold season
A growing medium is topsoil mixed with compost and placed on top of the manure. It is mixed at a ratio of 1 part of garden soil to 1 part of compost. To ensure your plants are not burned by the manure make a layer growing medium is at least 10-12 inches thick above your heat source.
You can make your natural hotbed as wide and deep as you like if the ratio of the heat source to growing medium remains 1:3 at all times.
Here is a video of how you can make a natural hotbed
- Weatherproof heating cables
You can also install weatherproof heating cables. Since this will require you connecting your heating cables to an electrical source we recommend that this is only done by a qualified electrician.
Here is a video on how to use weatherproof heating cables:
Burlap Wrap Tent
Making a burlap wrap tent is a good idea particularly for small plants trees and shrubs. Because burlap wrap is cheap and easy to erect, it makes it a protective covering of choice for many.
To install burlap wrap tent all you need is
- Drive a few stakes into the ground around your plants
- Cover your plant with the Burlap wrap and tie to the stakes with string.
- Make your Burlap covering at least 6 inches taller than your plant
- If you are pressed for time, simply place your burlap wrap over your plants.
Ensure that you check that heavy snowfall is not wearing your Burlap protection down as this could lead to the whole thing collapsing and breaking delicate branches of your plant or trees.
Here is a video demonstrating how to install Burlap wrap tent
Row cover tunnel
You can also cover your plants that grow in rows with row covers. Row covers are similar to a dome-shaped greenhouse and have a similar but much smaller frame.
Here is how you can make a row cover tunnel. Get these first:
- ½-inch P.V.C. piping. (Needs to be able to bend into a U shape
- Reinforcing rebar or wood stakes
- Garden wire
- Greenhouse plastic
- First, you will need to cut your rebar in lengths of about 8-10 inches using a hacksaw. Hammer them into the ground spacing them, three feet apart on either side of your row.
- Insert your P.V.C. pipe into the rebar and bend it until it forms a U shaped loop. Do this for the whole length of your row.
- Tape your greenhouse plastic to your P.V.C. pipes to complete the dome.
Here is a video on how to make a row tunnel covering:
Ever wondered why trees trunks are painted white? At first thought, you may think that this is for decorative purposes but this actually prevents them from sunscald. Wrapping your tree trunks in burlap will also perform the function as burlap but paint definitely looks better.
Protecting your plants from wind and salt
During the winter, a lot of salt is used to melt ice. During the winter, there is a possibility that some of this commercial road salt could find itself in your garden. As a result, measures must be taken to protect your plants from road salt, particularly if some of the plants in your garden are next to the road.
I have found that making a protective barrier around my garden that helps stop the salt before it gets in to be helpful. I normally use a landscape shield but this will only work if you already have a fence erected around your garden.
Landscape fabric wind barrier
The same protective barrier to protect your garden from salt can be extended upward to form a wind barrier. Preventing cold and strong wind from entering your garden will help you protect your plants.
The less cold wind you have blowing on your plants the better. Use landscape fabric to make a windbreak by attaching it to your fence.
Here’s how to do it:
A natural windbreak can also be made from planting trees and thick bushes. In the interim, you can use landscape fabric while your hedge grows. As a more permanent measure, a thick hedge or trees around your garden will prevent strong cold winds from damaging your plants. Hedges also have the added advantage of making your garden look beautiful. Some hedges will even produce beautiful flowers.
The only downside to this is that hedges need to be trimmed and watered occasionally and therefore there is, of course, the added labor.
A few hedges you can use are
- Cornelian cherry
Here are some of my favorite trees you can use as a windbreak
- field maple
Spray your plants with a copper fungicide during the winter
The cold brings on a completely new set of diseases for your plants. Spraying them with a copper fungicide will help them to remain disease free. This type of spraying is also known as winter dormant spray and is an excellent method to keep your garden protected during the cold months of the year.
Fruit trees and plants can easily suffer from what is known as peach curl and other plants are normally attacked by blight. Peach curl is the curling and wilting of leaves. Blight is a disease that causes your leaves develop dark spots that eventually lead it to wilt and fall off.
We recommend spraying your plants at least three times in late November, early January and mid-February.
When applying copper fungicide try and pick a day without wind and reapplication may be necessary if you have experienced heavy rain. The most critical thing to remember is not to spray after mid-February when your buds have broken.
Here is a video explaining things:
Storage of Pesticides
It is worth mentioning here that any leftover pesticides from the season before they need to be properly stored. Protecting your plants means ensuring that you have effective pesticides that are not contaminated. Often protection of our gardens is limited to plants and the garden itself but we forget to protect our implements and pesticides. To ensure you properly store your pesticides over the winter follow these steps
Choose storage that is away from human contact preferably with a slab floor and lockable cabinet-labelled pesticides.
Ensure you use only plastic or metal shelves. Wood shelves are not ideal because if your pesticides spill the wood will absorb the chemicals.
Ensure you put any dry pesticides on the top shelves above the liquid bottles. If you place your dry formulations on bottom shelves and a bottle of liquid begin leaking from above, this will cause it to mix with your dry powder and contaminate it.
Check expiry dates carefully to ensure that you are not storing medicine that will not be used the next season. Adhering to the storage instructions is also important.
If you do have expired pesticides and chemicals ensure you take them to a clean sweep site in your area. A clean sweep site is a place where chemicals can be safely disposed of. Never dispose of chemicals together with your ordinary household trash. Avoid pouring any chemical liquids onto your compost pile.
Storage of tools
While you are considering storing your pesticides, it is important to also store all your tools that you may have left outdoors before the winter. Here are a few tips
- Brush oil the dirt away from your tools with a course metal brush
- Clean any rust from your tools with sandpaper
- Wipe your tools with an oiled rug to ensure that rust does not begin to form again over winter.
- Remove any wood splinters with soft sandpaper from the handles of your tools. Ensuring that they are properly hung up in storage is important, leaving tools in the garden will lead to rot or rust for wooden and metal handles respectively.
- Cleaning your tools with white vinegar is also a good idea, as it not only removes rust but also kills any bacteria that may on your tools. You can purchase white vinegar from the link below.
If you have other equipment like sprinklers and a lawn mower, these will also need to be carefully stored. To prevent damage to your sprinkler systems ensure that your disconnect them and store carefully indoors. Sprinkler pipes left outdoors could easily burst from constant expansion and contraction.
Ensure that you drain all your fuel from the lawn mower as it can cause the tank to rust. Winter is also a great time to sharpen the blades and change oil and spark plugs
More on cleaning garden tools:
Mulch in the winter is an excellent idea. The correct mulch can both warm up the ground and protect your plants from the cold. What is essential in using mulch for your garden is ensuring that you choose the right one for the plants you are trying to protect.
One of the most important functions of mulch in the winter is to keep the ground frozen. This may sound strange, as you would expect that one wants to keep their plants warm. Well, a little warmth during the winter could cause your plants to begin growing again and kill them once you have colder weather.
Keeping your plants dormant can be achieved by mulching to ensure that they do not have any premature growth.
Great sources of mulch are
- Grass clipping
- Wood shavings
- Dry straw
Another benefit of keeping the ground frozen in winter is that most bacteria and diseases are killed when the ground freezes. If your soil does not freeze, you could carry over some harmful bacteria and diseases that will only increase the disease pressure on your garden in spring.
Later in the season when it starts warming up and you want to plant an early spring garden, plastic mulch is recommended. Black plastic mulch not only warms up the soil but also prevents weeds from growing around the area where it is planted. Caution must be taken not to leave this mulch on too late in the season as it may cause heat exhaustion to your plants as spring turns into summer.
Here is a great video that explains how you can use plastic mulch:
Putting your plants to bed
Plants that can survive the winter like broccoli and spinach can be put to bed by simply placing a thick layer of mulch over them early in fall. This mulch will allow your plants to remain dormant and will only revive as it begins warming up in late fall.
Plants that remain dormant are normally perennial garden plants like
- Raspberries, blueberries and other berry bushes.
- kale (usually grown as an annual)
- garlic (usually grown as an annual)
- radicchio (usually grown as an annual)
Here is a video of how you can put your garden to bed:
Listen to the weather forecast
Modern technology now allows us to determine when we will have bad weather. We can, therefore, be in a better position to prepare for frost.
Before frost, you can ensure that your plants are properly watered and you have all the equipment already in place.
Several phone applications these days are great in reminding you when you will have specific weather in your area and can be helpful in helping you plan for this.
While all these application and weather forecasts will help, you plan and take care of your garden in winter. Nothing beats common sense and human judgment. Your plants will give you indications as to what they lack or require by their physical outlook.
Plant a winter cover crop
Planting a winter cover crop in your garden is certainly a good idea. While cover crops are a whole subject lets briefly look at why you should use a cover crop and some crops you can plant.
Cover crops add nutrients to your soil
Legumes like clovers, beans and peace can infuse up to 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre. You can see that this not only will save you money but also since it is a natural source of nitrogen is will have all the added benefit of organic fertilizer.
Cover crops improve soil drainage
By tilling the cover crop back into the ground, the organic matter will then be turned into humus by the living organisms in the soil, which will benefit your garden in the spring.
Cover crops protect your soil from erosion
Heavy rain can cause the nutrient-packed topsoil to be washed away. Melting ice can have a similar effect and a cover crop will certainly reduce the impact of this.
Here is a great video of winter cover crops
One of the most important roles of winter is that it gives us time to sit back and plan our garden. We can decide on what to plant in the coming season and make the necessary preparations to do so.
Ensure that you take notes on the challenges you have faced over the season and how you think you can improve your garden. The best method of protection is prevention. Think of ways that you can prevent problems before you actually face them based on the notes and experiences of your past crop.
Some activities you may undertake during your planning are
- Consulting your local agricultural specialist on problems that you may have faced during the season.
- Preparing a budget for the coming season.
- Identifying new suppliers, products and innovative ways to make your garden and homestead as a whole better
Here is a list of things that you should not do in the winter.
What you should not do
- Do not fertilize plants in early winter; this will lead to a new spurt of growth that is counterproductive unless you are growing in special greenhouse conditions.
- Do not leave your houseplants outdoors.
- Do not water too much. If you water 3 times a week, cut back to once. This will ensure you keep your soil moist while you simply keep the plant healthy and not to try to encourage new growth.
- Do not plant late. Planting too late in the summer could lead to you losing your crop to frost. Make sure you understand the life cycle of your plants before attempting to plant.
- Try not to prune your plants this late in the winter, as this will make them more vulnerable to the cold and disease.
- If you are planting crops that can survive winter like lettuce ensure that you choose the correct variety. Don’t get caught off guard by choosing a spring variety as it is not resistant to the cold
- Do not forget to water new trees that you have planted late in the fall. These trees still need a lot of water to be able to grow.
- Do not bother spraying for weeds when temperatures fall below 50F. Most plants stop growing at this temperature and therefore using herbicides at this stage is simply a waste of money.
- One of the greatest assets in the garden that needs protecting is you. Ensure that you get enough rest during the winter so that you are fresh to begin working your soil in late fall.
Indoor Plants and Winter
While indoor and potted plants may be indoors this does not mean that they are not affected by the cold. Caution must be taken that these indoor plants are taken care and by following the following steps, you can ensure that they are protected all winter long.
Keep temperatures up for indoor plants
Indoor plants thrive at a temperature of 65 to 70F and therefore strategically placing them in your house to ensure that they get adequate heat will help them survive the cold. If they get too cold, they will not get enough air circulation and begin to wilt. I have found that placing potted plants in the warmer rooms in your house is helpful in this regard.
You can use an electric heating fan to keep the heat up if you need to. You can find information on this in our greenhouse section
During the cold months, your indoor plants can benefit from some fertilizer, one with both micro and macronutrients, such as Ozmocote Plus. It’ll last all winter long and it has a granule formula that does not burn your plants. Something easy to do in winter.
Inspect your plants for insects
Inspecting your plants for insects especially if they have been outdoors is important. Spraying them with a fungicide will ensure that they are safe to bring into your house. Ensure that the pots are clean as well.
Keep them watered
By keeping your plants watered, you will allow their temperature to remain constant. Also watering the leaves helps warm your plants up.
Sometimes it does not hurt to be a little proactive with your indoor plants. You can give them extra sunshine by moving them closer to windows. Ensure that a safe distance is kept between the window and the plant to ensure that none of the cold air affects its leaves.
Here is a great video on taking care of your houseplants in winter
Frosted plants emergency procedure
No matter how much preparation you do for the winter, you may lose a plant or two to frost. Do not despair, as there may be one or two things that you can do.
- Cut off the piece of the plant that has been affected by frost as soon as possible. This will ensure that the affected part does not begin to decay while still attached to the rest of the plant. This could lead to the spread of diseases and the subsequent death of the whole plant.
- Protect plants that have been damaged by the sun. If a plant defrosts too quickly this is likely to cause damage. Covering your plants with a black refuse back in the morning is a quick remedy.
- Ensure that early in spring, you fertilize your damaged plant with a balanced fertilizer to ensure that it can resume growing healthily.
Here is the great video of dealing with cold damaged plants
Keeping your garden in good health during the winter is something that is easy to do and will benefit your homestead overall. By employing one or more of these methods, you will take advantage of the cold months, and reap the benefits of having a healthy garden in spring.
Winter need not be a time when gardening stops. While there may be no growth-taking place, the soil and plants still need your help to remain in good health.
Let us know if you have any of your own methods on how to protect your garden during winter and share your experience, having used the techniques above.