Freezing temperatures signal an end to most of the vegetables, fruits, and herbs in a typical garden. What to do with all of this newfound free time? There are a few things you can do to prepare your garden for the next growing season.
Recycle your leaves
Rake up the leaves that fall on your property (or get some from a neighbour). Leaves are an excellent soil amendment; they improve water retention and soil structure. If you’ve ever dug up a pile of decomposing leaves, you’ll notice that they’re full of earthworms–which are your garden’s best friends. Leaves also foster microorganisms that are beneficial to healthy, nourishing soil.
There are a couple of ways to add leaves to your soil:
Dig a thin layer of leaves into your garden. Ensure that they’re not packed together, and they’re covered with a thin layer of soil or compost. Thick layers of leaves tend to stick together like stacks of pages, and not decompose.
Put your leaves in your compost pile. They should decompose within a year as long as they are not allowed to dry out. Leaves need to be kept moist in order to break down.
In either case, you can expedite the process by shredding the leaves with a lawnmower or shears.
Dig up your compost
Empty out your compost bin, and spread the fully or partially decomposed matter on your empty garden beds. The material will continue to decompose over the winter and into spring, adding nutrients to the soil.
Return to the compost bin the material that is still fairly intact and new, such as the plants that recently succumbed to the frost. These plants will continue to break down over the course of the winter and into the new year, in time to be added to your garden the next fall.
Cut back perennials
Most vegetables are annuals or biennials, but some vegetables (and many flowers) are perennials. Once the cold weather has killed their above-ground growth, you may want to cut them back down to the root, and put the plant matter into the compost. If you use a cold compost system, avoid putting seeds into the compost, as they may germinate once the compost is moved to the garden.
Are you a senior interested in growing your own organic herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers using healthy soil, and no chemicals? Are you living in a senior’s residence or an Ottawa Community Housing building? The Canadian Organic Growers–Ottawa St Lawrence Outaouais Chapter (COG OSO) offers a program called Senior Organic Gardeners (SOG), which may appeal to you!
Winter squash, as the name implies, is harvested in the late fall or winter (depending on where you live). Its thick skin hardens as it cures, providing a protective casing for the flesh inside. You can store it for many months in a cold room or similar environment. Leave the stems on the fruits to keep them from drying out. Place each squash on a few sheets of newspaper or a piece cardboard, ensuring that it doesn’t touch its neighbour.
If frost or winter necessitates picking a squash before it is fully ripe, it may ripen in storage so long as the ripening process started before you picked it. A dark green, immature pumpkin, for example, may not ripen in storage. The spotted green squash on the above left is now, two months later, almost fully ripe.
Squashes can stay in cold storage for many months, Check them periodically to ensure that they are not getting spongey or soft. If this is the case, it is time to use them!
There are a few ways to cook winter squash, but here’s what I like to do:
Cut the squash in half.
Scoop out the seeds, but leave the stringy stuff inside.
Place halves on a cookie sheet or baking dish, peel side down, so that they form two bowls.
Bake at 350F until the flesh is soft. The cooking time varies according to the type and size of squash. Check it periodically, and if the halves fill up with fluid, drain that into the sink.
Let the squash cool completely.
Drain any liquid that has accumulated.
Use a spoon to scoop away the stringy innards.
Start at one of the cut edges, and remove the peel in strips.
Puree the flesh using a food processor, blender, or potato masher.
Now for the best part: the seeds!
You can roast and eat the seeds from all varieties of winter squash, not just pumpkins! Don’t forget to save a few seeds for next year, unless you planted more than one variety of winter squash–in which case cross-pollination may have occurred.
Place the seeds in a colander, and run them under cold water to rinse the bits of fleshy pulp off them.
Spread them evenly on a lightly greased cookie sheet.
Season with salt, or your favourite spices.
Bake at 300F until the seeds begin to turn a light golden brown.
This weekend, the garden was hit by a hard frost. Most of its plants are done for the year, but that doesn’t mean an end to gardening. If you have the space, there are a lot of vegetables and herbs that will flourish inside.
What you need:
A south-, southeast-, or southwest-facing window, in an area that has good air circulation and constant warm temperatures (no drafts). Herb and vegetable plants need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day, so if you have a sunny windowsil that gets at least that much sun, you’re well on your way. As the sunlight in winter is not as intense as the sunlight in the summer, you may need to supplement natural light with artificial light. Shop lights will work in a pinch, if you don’t have grow lights.
Containers that are sufficiently large to contain the plant and its roots, with room to spare. Plants grow more slowly indoors than out, so consider planting dwarf varieties (such as cherry tomatoes and mini carrots), so that you don’t need large containers, and you don’t have to wait as long to harvest.
A good quality potting soil, which ideally has been mixed with compost. Although you can use garden soil, it tends to be too compact to allow proper drainage. Without proper drainage, your plants’ roots may rot.
Seeds. As mentioned above, choose varieties that mature quickly or produce small vegetables or fruits. You can start seedlings from plants you’ve harvested, by planting the seeds straightaway instead of saving them for next year. For example, when making tomato sauce, plant the seeds as you remove them from the tomatoes.
In some cases, you can extend the life of plants you started outdoors by bringing them inside for another few weeks or months. In the past, I have dug up broccoli plants that were not quite mature, and enjoyed broccoli florets in December. This year, due to a very wet summer, my eggplants were very late, so I dug up the best plants and brought them inside to see if they will produce. I am also keeping alive the parsley, ginger, and oregano that were potted all summer. One thing that you do need to be cautious of when bringing plants indoors is that they may bring pests, such as aphids, along. You can wash them off using a spray bottle filled with water or insecticidal soup.
You may need to water your indoors plants more frequently than you would if they were outdoors, as indoor air–heated by a furnace–tends to be drying. But, ensure you don’t overwater them either, as that can cause your plants to rot.
Here’s a list of plants that you can grow inside in the winter. Greens and herbs are the easiest to grow; plants that produce fruit, such as peppers and tomatoes, may need supplemental lighting and staking.