TREMONT — It was shortly after a hard frost in September when Laura Lee Hughes decided to prepare her garden for winter.
One of the gardeners in the Kelley Farm Community Garden, owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Hughes lives in Bernard during the summer and heads to Southern California for the winter. That was one reason she did the season-ending work on her garden plot before the other gardeners were ready. By October, Hughes was back in San Diego.
“All of the Kelley gardeners felt this was our most productive summer,” she said, despite a late frost at the beginning of June and then the one in September. “Everyone had more time to spend there.”
Gardening grew in popularity when the pandemic hit. Seed companies announced shortages, and hardware and garden stores had a difficult time keeping up with demand for tools and supplies. While people were stuck at home, and grocery store shelves began to show holes that signified a lack of supply, many chose to plant a garden, similar to the victory gardens of World Wars I and II that were initiated almost exactly 100 years ago.
For many first-time gardeners, it may feel like once all the fresh produce has been harvested, the season is over. Technically, it is, but most seasoned gardeners would say it is never too early to begin preparing for next season’s garden.
“I have a little log I keep my gardening in each year,” said Howard Colter, who has dabbled in gardening since he was a boy, following around his mom and grandparents. “I move things around in order to not repeat at all. Nothing gets planted in the same place the following year.”
Colter has had a garden plot at the Babson Creek Community Garden, also owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, for at least the last five seasons. Preparing his garden for the winter season is something that is done throughout the growing season, not just in the late fall.
“I start before the fall,” said Colter. “When I have a crop like peas, when they’re done, I take them out of the ground then. I clean my bed all summer long. My main goal is to get things out of the ground so they’re not taking up space and inviting insects.”
He also makes sure to keep weeds out of the garden, even throughout the winter, if possible. According to Colter, they can deplete the soil of nutrients and that’s the opposite of what needs to happen to the soil while it is not hosting productive plants.
“I really try and weed the bed carefully before I walk away for the season,” he added.
As much as there are many ways to tend a garden, and each gardener will offer different advice, there are also several ways to put a garden to bed for the winter. But some basics apply to both.
First, clear the garden of plants that are no longer producing. Some crops are hardy and like the cold weather, like cabbages, kale, collard greens and Brussels sprouts. Colter likes to leave his Brussels sprouts until there have been several cold days because they get sweeter. There are also some plants that can be stored in the ground, with the proper insulating layer, and harvested throughout the winter, like carrots, leeks, turnips and parsnips. In order to be properly insulated, these crops need to be covered by at least a foot of straw or other mulch, such as leaves. Garlic is one crop that goes into the ground during the fall in order to be ready to be harvested the following season.
“Anything that’s not diseased, and not weeds, can be chopped up and put in the compost pile,” said Hughes.
It is important to pull up the majority of the root when taking plants out, according to Lauren Cote, who works at Beech Hill Farm.
This is also the time to remove stakes, posts, trellises and other supports used throughout the growing season and to clean and store them for next year.
Next comes preparing the soil in a way that adds nutrients to it throughout the cold months. Both Colter and Hughes use compost as part of their soil supplementation. Although, for the 2019 season, Hughes tried a cover crop, like a neighbor in the Kelley Farm did.
“Last year, I didn’t get compost and I got the winter wheat,” she said, adding that she planted it in October. “Mine never came up.”
Other cover crops for growing zone 6 and colder include crimson clover, oats, brassicas and field peas. Winter cover crops work by growing in the fall, once the garden is cleared, and dying during the winter, creating a cover on the soil that insulates and prevents soil erosion, which then can be turned into the soil in the spring, all the while enhancing the soil with nutrients.
Colter adds pellets of lime to his layer of compost. Lime can be used to balance the pH of the soil and it also adds calcium to the soil. If a gardener chooses to use dolomite lime, it also provides magnesium for the soil. Compost and lime take a bit of time to absorb into the soil, which is why it is beneficial to put it on in the fall. Both Colter and Hughes recommend not disturbing the soil too deeply.
“I didn’t dig too much,” said Hughes. “The current theory is not to dig too much.”
Colter recommends just scratching it into the surface of the soil by moving the first 1-2 inches of topsoil.
With the compost, both gardeners add manure, preferably from local goats, that has been properly cured. Fresh manure from horses, goats or sheep can be too strong for garden plants.
“There was a shortage of goat manure this fall because it was so dry, it wasn’t composting,” said Hughes, who was able to get just enough for her garden plot.
Once the compost and manure are in place, Colter covers his garden with straw. While it’s not necessary to add another layer, the straw helps keep moisture in, which helps the soil enhancers below break down. Other gardeners use seaweed.
“One of my gardening friends said I should put a whole layer on top,” said Hughes, who had neither the time nor the proper place to harvest seaweed.
One of the benefits to being in a community garden is seeing what other gardeners do and sharing methods. Colter, who has a number of years working in gardens under his belt, says he also takes pointers from some of the more serious gardeners.
“I watch them and see what I can learn,” he said, adding that one put down straw and then seaweed on top to keep it in place through the winter. “If you’re putting in compost and manure, looking ahead, in 10 years you’ve really got something.”
Hughes, who is a big fan of growing several varieties of lettuce, has already started her garden in California.