These days, the leaves are changing and pumpkin spice is ubiquitous. But surprisingly, it’s also the perfect time to prepare your garden for all the delectable crops that thrive in the chilliest months of the year. Even if you don’t have a yard (or have perfected the art of growing weeds and crabgrass), you still have time to get a winter crop off the ground. Consider it a worthy investment with a big payoff. Here’s a handy guide to help you get your winter garden in gear.
Survey the land
Not sure if you have enough room? Don’t worry. You’ll probably be starting your garden in pots — especially if you start from seed. And luckily, planting spaces come in all sizes.
Gardeners with a big or medium-sized yard have several layout options at their disposal since they’ll be able to arrange their crops in different rows. Beginners, though, might want to start small.
Small yards might fare better with the space-efficient “keyhole” orientation. This means planting in a “U” shape and leaving a “catwalk” in the center for the gardener to walk through.
Have you ever heard of a vertical garden? Inventive gardeners can use anything from old dresser drawers to hanging soda bottles as makeshift (aka “upcycled”) planters in a vertical orientation.
And, of course, there’s always the windowsill or countertop.
Pick your crop
Autumn is the perfect time to sow the seeds for winter vegetables. If you’re new to the gardening game, then you’re in luck: winter veggies easy to care for, require less water and sun, and can withstand varying levels of frost.
Included are a whole host of leafy green varieties, including kale, cabbage, and lettuce. Carrots, radishes, and other root vegetables are also on the list. And bulbs like onions and garlic might be the ultimate in low-maintenance crops — you can even start a garlic plant with a single store-bought clove.
All about soil
When it comes to soil, good drainage is key for keeping oxygen in and mold out. You can test your yard’s drainage by running the hose over your planting area. If the water puddles and doesn’t get absorbed right away, then your soil might need a little help. Fortunately, the solution is as easy as mixing in some compost (either homemade or store bought).
If you’re sticking with pots or other contained spaces, just add bits of broken terra-cotta or gravel to the bottom.
A good pH balance allows your soil to absorb nutrients. You can easily test your soil with an inexpensive pH meter, available from your local gardening store. Just stick it into the soil — if the meter reads somewhere between 5.5 and 7, then you’re good to go (vegetables generally like a pH of 6.5).
If your pH is too low (acidic), then your soil might benefit from a bit of sulfur. Adding lime or wood ash will raise the pH. Talk to an expert at your local gardening supply store and make sure you follow the directions on the package.
Plant the seeds
Seeds vs. seedlings
Figuring out your method of choice can be a little overwhelming. On one hand, seeds are cheaper and offer more options, but they also require more time and care. Seedlings, on the other hand, may offer fewer options, but allow you to skip the initial germination steps, ensuring that you’ll be starting off with a healthy plant. If you’re a beginner, you might want to start with seedlings.
If your region is still getting blasted with a final burst of autumnal heat, then you might want to start some of your crops in pots and wait for the temperature to drop before transplanting. Anything from terra-cotta to an old yogurt container will do, as long as it has holes on the bottom for drainage. Starter kits are another handy way to go. Some crops like carrots and peas, however, can be seeded directly into your backyard soil since they don’t transplant as well.
You can use almost any container to start your seeds — it just needs to be at least 2 to 3 inches deep, with a couple of holes at the bottom for drainage. Start by filling your container with multi-purpose compost or a germinating mix. Water thoroughly and poke several holes in each pot. Add a seed to each hole and then cover them with your planting mixture.
As you care for your plants, the most important thing to remember is not to overwater. Not only is this a great practice for conservation, but watering too often can deplete your soil of much-needed oxygen.
And how can you tell when your soil or germinating mix needs water? One inch of water per week is the standard dose, but you might want to check your soil first. Dip your finger down about 3 to 4 inches. If it’s dry, then it’s time to water. Wilting leaves are another indication that water is needed, but it could also be a sign that drainage is poor, so test it first.
Get “down to earth”
When your seedlings have grown their second set of leaves, it’s time to transplant. This could take anywhere between 3 and 12 weeks, depending on the plant.
More soil prep
Make sure your outdoor soil is loose, level, and free of weeds before you transplant. This ensures good drainage. You can use a metal rake to first loosen up clods of dirt and remove rocks and lumps. Next, compress the dirt by walking over it, carefully, in rows. Then use the rake to loosen the top few inches. A fine texture is what you’re after.
The big move
Before transplanting, you’ll want to ensure your veggies are prepared for the changes in temperature that come with the change in locale. You can do this by moving your pots to a covered outdoor area for several hours a day, 7 to10 days before you plan to transplant.
When you’re ready to transplant, loosen the soil in your pot with a fork or spoon and pull the plant out gently by the leaves. The spacing will vary depending on the crop, so double-check your seed packet. To transplant, dig a small hole in the soil and place your seedling inside. The top of its roots should be level with soil line. Fill the hole with water and then the surrounding soil (this is called “puddling”). Repeat until all your seedlings are in the ground.
And with that, you’re on your way to a great winter garden! By taking one step at a time and sticking with low-maintenance crops, even the most novice gardener can create a little late-fall magic.