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How to Prepare a Winter Vegetable Garden

Cabbage seedling and frost1

Autumn and winter crops replace summer crops as days shorten and temperatures begin to drop. Root crops do best in cool weather as do most leafy crops.

As warm-weather fruiting vegetables—tomatoes, peppers, and squashes—finish their run for the year remove them and prepare planting beds for autumn and winter crops–beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, kale, spinach, lettuce, and cabbage.

Give planting beds for cool-weather crops the same attention and care you do for spring and summer crops. Clean beds of plant debris and feed the soil.

10 Tips to Prepare the Winter Vegetable Garden:

1. Remove the remnants of the summer garden—spent crops—and put green and brown plant materials into the compost pile. Clearing planting beds of spent plants will ensure that summer pest insects and diseases do not overwinter in the garden. Avoid composting diseased or pest infected plants.

2. Turn the soil with a garden spade; turn the soil spade deep (about 12 inches) to aerate the garden and break up clods.

3. Add organic amendments to the planting beds—steer manure, chicken manure, seaweed and kelp, and homemade or commercial compost. Use a garden fork to mix the amendments into planting beds already turned with a spade.

4. Add blood meal (rich in nitrogen, average NPK ratio 11-0-0), cottonseed meal (rich in nitrogen, average NPK ratio 6-2-1), bone meal (rich in phosphate, average NPK 1-11-0) or bagged organic vegetable food across the planting beds. Follow the directions for each product and work them into the top 6 inches of soil.

5. Shape winter garden planting beds so that they are slightly raised at least 3 to 4 inches high and slightly sloped to the south—higher on the north side, lower on the south side; the southern exposure will warm the soil and direct cold air away from winter crops.

6. Prepare furrows or planting mounds with a hoe; this is important in heavy soils. Make sure furrows run north and south so that crops get full exposure to the sun in the course of the day.

7. Plant tall crops to the north and short crops to the south so that short crops are not shaded by taller crops.

8. Remember full sun is needed for winter vegetables; use only planting beds that get all-day sun. Garden beds near south-facing wooden fences, stone walls, or buildings are ideal; they absorb solar heat during the day and radiate it back into the garden at night.

9. Have portable plastic row covers or portable cold frames ready to set over crops when the first frost or freeze is forecast. You can arch PVC pipe over beds and stake them in place. When freezing weather arrives cover the arches with clear plastic (4 to 6mil is best); make sure the plastic hangs over on the side and ends to create a mini-greenhouse for crops.

10. Add gravel, bark nuggets, or straw to all-weather paths or set raised planks in place to keep your feet out of the mud when autumn and winter rains arrive.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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