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Prepare Now for the Spring Garden of Your Dreams

Winter garden prep tips to set you up for a successful growing season By Joshua Nishimoto

The cold, winter months have made their way to the Inland Northwest. If you were unable to finish your fall cleanup in time before the first snow, there's still time during the upcoming months to prepare your garden and landscaping projects for a bountiful spring, with flourishing greens, gorgeous flowers and delectable veggies. Here are preparations to make during the upcoming months to have the greens of one’s dreams.

I. Toss rotting and finished plants. Old plants can contain disease, pests and fungi. Unwanted insects feed on crops throughout the summer and may lay eggs on plants’ stalks and leaves. Removing spent plants from the soil surfaces or burying them in garden trenches (if they are disease-free) prevents pests from thriving come springtime. Burying old plants in the garden also adds organic matter to the soil, improving the cultivated earth and overall health of the soil. Maintaining soil health consistently will ensure that the garden will have the most opportunity for growth come spring.

II. Find seeds and trees. Make a plan. Did the varieties of fruits and vegetables planted last season perform adequately? Now is the time to reconsider under-performing plants and find out if a better variety exists for the specific growing environment. Find out what worked and what didn’t, research the seeds that will grow best and purchase them. Make sure to take detailed notes for next season.

Be sure to note the best performing soil, watering strategies and planting techniques. You can also find complementary elements including other plants and trees that can enhance the garden environment outside of the premier garden veggies, plants and flowers. Be sure to review your notes. Haven’t thought about complementary plants or other aesthetic elements? It might be time to think about trying something new.

III. Fertilize. Winter is a great time to make amendments to your soil. These amendments can be anything from manure to compost, and even organic fertilizers such as bone meal, kelp and rock phosphate. Adding nutrients to your fertilizer during both the fall and winter months of the year gives them time to break down, enrich the soil and become biologically active. Mulching the soil after adding these amendments can prevent winter rains from washing the amendments below the active root zone; this especially applies to raised beds because they drain more readily than in-ground beds. Be sure to remove the mulch in early spring in advance of new planting.

IV. Plant cover crops. Sow cover crops like rye, vetch or clover. These crops help prevent soil erosion, break up compacted areas and increase levels of organic matter in garden beds. Cover crops also add nutrients and help soil draw carbon into the soil from the atmosphere.

Planting legumes in one’s garden such as clover or field peas can increase the levels of available nitrogen for garden vegetables. The general guideline for planting cover crops is planting one month prior to the first killing frost. Note that some cover crops are hardier than others, so be sure to plant according to the crop’s viability. Consult your local extension agent or seed provider to identify the best fall cover crop for your region. "Also protect vulnerable plants from deer browsing with long-lasting deer spray or deer netting,” shares Elaine Christen, co-owner of New Leaf Nursery with her husband Eric. “They get very hungry during the winter.”

V. Prune perennials. During these slower-paced, chillier days is a good time to trim some perennial garden plants, though take care to ensure you choose the right ones. Although plants like fennel benefit from a fall pruning, research shows that spent raspberry canes continue to nourish the eggplant’s crown into the winter.

Blueberries prefer a spring pruning, which helps safeguard the plant from exposure to disease and stress. Fall pruning efforts should be focused on flowers like roses; herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage; and vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. Blackberries also benefit from a fall cleanup. Remove pent or crossing canes to help control the plant’s seed. But, according to Elaine, “Winterize hydrangea and roses, after they have lost their leaves, by covering up to 18 inches onto the stems with pine needles, a two-inch row at the base. This will help promote growth next spring!”

Do not cut perennial flowering plants, particularly those covered in seed heads. These will make excellent meals for overwintering birds in your neighborhood and add interest to the winter garden. Stalks and leaves also provide winter protection for a plant crown.

VI. Divide and plant bulbs. If you’ve recently observed that your garden is receiving more leaves than blooms, bare patches or noticeable overcrowding, it’s time to divide and replant your bulbs. Spring and early summer blooming bulbs can be dug up and divided anytime when the foliage gets brown or just before the ground freezes. A digging fork is a great tool to use when digging up bulbs, opposed to a spade or shovel, which can cut the bulbs in half. Discard any bulbs that show signs of disease or insect damage. Only keep large and healthy bulbs that are firm and free from spots. Compost undersized bulbs.

You will want to plant spring and early blooming summer bulbs in the fall when the temperature of the soil reaches 60 degrees. Make sure that your beds have good drainage. A good rule of thumb when planting bulbs is to plant the bulb at a depth that is three times the bulb’s height.

VII. Mulch. Mulching in the winter benefits the garden the same as it would in the summertime. These benefits include, but are not limited to, reducing water loss, protecting the soil from erosion and inhibiting weeds. But winter mulching has other benefits as well. These benefits help with soil transitions from warmer temperatures to colder temperatures. This freezing and thawing of the earth can adversely affect gardens and plants whose roots suffer from churning and heaving.

Adding this thick layer of mulch to the soil surface helps regulate soil temperatures and moisture and ease the transition into winter. A thick layer of mulch protects against frosts and will prolong your crops. As the mulch breaks down, it incorporates fresh organic material into your soil.

VIII. Harvest compost. To top off your garden bins and refuel and replenish your soil, be sure to use nutrient-rich material. This material will nourish your soil and jumpstart growth come springtime.

Be sure to clean out finished compost to make way for another batch. Replenishing compost will ensure that your plants are insulated from the harsh, cold winter. To keep microbes working longer, build your fall compost heap with plenty of those leftover autumn leaves, straw or sawdust. One can layer these using kitchen scraps and other active green matter.

IX. Clean, sharpen and look for new tools. Take this time to clean your tools. While a seasoned gardener knows that it’s important to keep their tools clean year-round, it is harder to remember to keep one’s tools clean during the busier times of the year. Give your tools some TLC during the off-season. Practicing the simple art of taking care of your tools will greatly extend the life of your gardening equipment.

First, wash one’s tools to remove dirt and other materials. If there is noticeable rust or wear, remove with sandpaper or a wire brush. Sharpen hoes and shovels with a file. Lastly, rub the surfaces of your tools with light machine oil; use an old rag. This will prevent oxygen from reaching the metal and extend the lifespan of your tools for the year.

Now is a great time to take a step back, review your gardening plans and re-evaluate strategies for a successful spring growing season. Take a hard look at what’s been done and consider what different tactics can be implemented to enhance your garden. It’s not too early to start preparing and prepping for a successful growing season come spring. We can learn as much from our successful plants as we can from our failed ones. Take this time to research possible solutions to plants that were less than successful, retool and try again. Be sure to rethink types of soil used, watering schedule, or even the times of year in which you plant.

The annual garden review and re-evaluation time is a learning process, which will only enhance your ability to grow lush gardens and fruitful plants. Following these garden preparation tips, along with careful consideration for growing climate, crop selection and soil curation, will set up any gardener for a lush and beautiful flowering garden others will envy.

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