Good Night Garden, Sweet Winter Dreams - Modern Gardener | KUED.org

Good Night Garden, Sweet Winter Dreams

Ashley Swansong

Modern Gardener Host and Author

Ashley works for KUED Channel 7 as a digital producer and host of Modern Gardener. She loves gardening and is excited to share what she's learned from her own garden!Read more

Winterize Your Garden with Chop and Drop Method and Cover Crops.

Hello fellow gardeners! Winter is upon us and we're here to give you two useful techniques to winterizing your garden using my Wasatch Community Gardens garden plot as an example. I'm specifically going to explain two methods of garden winterizing: chop and drop and cover crops.

These methods will help you have healthier soil come spring and perhaps a better yield next season.

What is chop and drop?

Old, overgrown cabbage. 

Chop and Drop is a popular method in which you take the dead plants from last season, chop them up into small pieces and use them as the mulch for your garden—rather than simply pulling them out and throwing them away.

Gardens do better if they are covered for the winter months. Covering your garden helps protect the soil from the elements and unwanted seeds, as well as, prevents soil erosion. Some people use leaves or straw, but why not use the vegetation leftover from your tomato or squash vines, pepper plants, or those enormous rhubarb leaves?

Enormous rhubarb leaves. 

You’ll first want to remove any old fruits and vegetables, no matter how small, to ensure you don’t get any voluntary plants growing from their seeds in the future. Also, those green tomatoes probably won’t break down and decompose by spring and you’ll find you’ve got rotting green tomatoes in your soil, and rotting fruits can attract more insect pests.

It’s important to have a good pair of sharp shears because you’ll want to chop the stems up into one to two-inch chunks. But, as always, wear gloves and watch those fingers!

Once you’ve chopped and dropped down to the base of the plant, pull the roots completely out of the ground. If it isn’t too big or tough, you can chop the root up and drop it into the mix too. If you don’t have enough plant matter to completely mulch and cover your garden, just throw some leaves or straw into the mix.

Leaves as mulch. 

What is a cover crop?

A cover crop is a temporary place holder, as I like to think of it, that is usually grown in the cold season when you're not growing your garden. The cover crop helps prevent soil erosion, improves soil quality and fertility, aids in building soil nutrients and can ward off weeds and pests.

Winter oats. 

Some common cover crop seeds are crimson clover, field peas, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, rye, buckwheat, and alfalfa. You can even plant a combination of these seeds together.

Austrian winter peas. 

When you sow these seeds while winterizing your garden they will grow in the early spring and add much needed nitrogen to your soil. Nitrogen is a beneficial element that is necessary for soil fertility and quality and which is often low in garden soil.

If you want to turn your cover crop into green manure, simply till or turn them over into your soil in the spring before they flower or go to seed. This provides added nutrients and organic material to your soil.

If you’re not planning on tilling or turning your soil, you can pull them out and throw them in the compost pile. Just by growing them you are helping your garden by adding nitrogen to the soil.

Hand painted sign by Marybeth with Wasatch Community Gardens. 

Even if your soil appears to be perfectly healthy, planting a cover crop is good practice in keeping soil fertile, avoiding erosion, maintaining soil nutrient levels, and breaking up hard or compacted soil.

On that note, it’s a good idea to periodically have your soil tested. You can send a soil sample into the Utah State University Analytical Lab (USUAL) and they will send you an analysis of your soil’s pH, salinity, phosphorus, and potassium levels. They offer a number of different tests. If you’re unsure what to test for, you can always call and talk to someone, or find out more information on their webpage.

Many green thumbs assume their soil is perfectly healthy, but the test results can often come as a surprise. For example, if the USUAL analysis shows the soil having high levels of salinity, the garden experts would recommend avoiding horse manure because it’s often high in salt, and instead using blood meal and cover crops to benefit your soil.

How to plant and manage cover crops.

To sow your cover crop, simply broadcast the seeds by slightly raking soil over them and covering them with mulch, as shown in the video.

As I mentioned before, an important part of using a cover crop is to pull it up in the spring before it goes to seed or flowers. If it goes to seed it can become a weed, meaning an undesirable “volunteer” plant that keeps cropping up in your garden.

Hairy vetch. 

You will be surprised how fast the cover crop will grow in early spring. If you’re not careful it can turn into something as thick as lawn, making it hard to pull out or turn over into your soil.

Winter rye.

You don’t have to worry about watering your cover crop. The melting snow and moisture from early spring will suffice to keeping your cover crop happy and growing.

Come next growing season, you will be pleased to see your garden performing better with healthier plants and a higher yield.