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Answering winter garden prep questions | Digging in with gardenstead Ep. 8

Winter garden prep community FAQs — answered!

Our favourite blue-eyed scientist, Aaron Deacon of BIOS Nutrients, is back on the pod! This time, Aaron takes questions from our community about getting gardens ready for winter.

At this time of year, there’s no end of questions about winter garden prep, and we’re so happy to have Aaron available to answer those questions.

In his usual compassionate-for-the earth fashion, Aaron doles out advice and knowledge in equal measure in this informative conversation. From adding compost, mulch and organic matter to gardens to what the heck is soil solarization, Katie and Aaron cover a lot of ground.

Get your gardens ready with us!

Community winter garden prep questions

Show notes:

Here are the questions Aaron covers in the episode:

In general, what should we do to prepare our gardens for winter?

Add organic matter! You can add lawn clippings, leaf debris, perennial trimmings and compost — this is a key step to add nutrition back into soil after a season of gardening.

Adding organic matter feeds helpful (and vital) microbes in the soil. You can can also add in granular kelp or alfalfa meal for a super macro nutrition boost, which will break down slowly over the winter to create well-nourished soil for spring planting.

Aaron also suggests planting a cover crop. Cover crops add protection to the soil, and their root mass below will help to feed microbes.

Do pests overwinter in the garden?

Short answer: yes, they will. Pests will hide in mulch and organic matter. To combat this, some people pull the organic matter or mulch layer up to expose the underside, when it’s down to freezing temperatures to kill off pests. You can also stir up the organic matter or mulch layer to disperse pests — that will further expose pests to the cold and help kill them off.

The tricky part is that while some pests are problematic for some plants, they’re beneficial for others. So, another way to think about pests is that they’re part of a whole ecosystem, so this starts to get into the territory of an integrated pest management system (Aaron digs into this further in this episode).

Does cold weather kill off disease and problematic fungi?

Yes, extreme cold and extreme heat will for the most part. The problem is, snow insulates soil so well that many of these kinds of problems will not die off because it simply does not get cold enough. Living organisms adapt to survive harsh conditions, so they can survive through the winter.

How do you properly dispose of a diseased plant?

There are a few ways to dispose of a diseased plant. You can throw it into a black bag and leave it in the sun — basically bake it. Alternatively, you can bury it and it will decompose. In general, you’re well advised to dispose of plants infected with pathogens separately from compost you’ll be using in your garden. For more answers, we look to no less an expert than the RHS for comprehensive solutions to this variable problem.

What is soil solarization?

Essentially, with soil solarization, soil is heated up to a certain temperature to pasteurize it, in the process killing pathogens and pests. Because pasteurization is not the same as sterilization, helpful microbes will survive this process while pathogens die off. This article provides a more detailed explanation of the process.

Would soil solarization get rid of squash vine borers?

Aaron’s speculation — possibly. If the temperatures don’t get high enough, then solarization won’t heat deeply enough to get rid of an insect like squash vine borers. For this pest, Aaron recommends trying diatomaceous earth.

For more about what to do about this seemingly relentless insect, this article from the University of Minnesota has a lot of useful information.

When should we put mulch on our gardens?

Any time. All the time. As Aaron says, we should never leave soil exposed. If your goal is weed suppression, add three inches of mulch.

What kind of cover crops should we use?

Thyme. Oregano. Red clover. Winter rye. There are so many. But, be specific with your cover crop, use it to keep out what you don’t want in your garden.

You can even allow grass to grow in your garden. Yes! Grass has been demonized by growers, in the mistaken belief that grass takes away nutrients from your planted crops/plants. But, grass is good! As Aaron says, the more roots you have growing around your plants, the more microbial activity there will be around the roots of your plants. This will help feed your plants. And, at the surface level, grass keeps soil from drying out.

(Which cover crop does Aaron love? Red clover. Tune in at 13:57 to find out what Aaron believes is the best thing about it!)

How can you find out the best cover crop for your region?

Aaron recommends planting something native. So, your best bet is to do some research for your area. Plus, depending on the season he also recommends planting different crops. (We may just have to do a whole episode on cover crops!)

Is there a soil amendment that’s good to add in the fall?

That’s a good question. Do you need to increase the nutrient content of your soil? Is it depleted from a season of growing? Or do you need to improve aeration, drainage, root growth, and/or biological activity in your garden’s soil? Depending on what your soil needs, you’ll need to adjust the soil amendment you use.

Do you need to add bonemeal to soil when planting bulbs?

Not necessarily. Depends on how well nourished your soil is. There’s harm in adding it, but it’s not always necessary.

What are the top 3 gardening tasks we should do in the fall?

  1. put organic matter back into the soil
  2. sow cover crops
  3. compost compost compost!

Do you have a specific winter garden prep question that’s not been covered in this episode? (We get it! So many questions!) Head on over to the gardenstead community to see if it’s been answered there. Happy fall gardening, everyone.

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