Typically, as the leaves begin to change and the air grows cooler, it’s time to shift our focus in the permaculture garden toward winterizing your garden. The changing season seems to be late this year though! Regardless, winter will come eventually, so I know I need to be as prepared as possible!
In this guide, we’ll explore how to prepare your permaculture garden for winter so you will have the healthiest garden possible going into the spring. The more we can do now to support garden health, the better our spring gardens will be — it’s that simple!
Assess Your Garden’s Health
Before diving into winter preparations, take a moment to assess the current state of your permaculture garden.
An important part of permaculture is observing and working with natural patterns. So the first step is naturally to observe and assess the garden.
Note where loops need to be closed in your system. For example, if there are too many pests, depleted soil, diseased plants, watering issues, etc. these are signs a loop needs to be closed.
Now is also a good time to note where structural improvements need to be made. For example, a raised bed that needs to be fixed or replaced.
Weed Before Winter
Weeds can get out of control quickly in the spring if they are left over winter (especially if you are in a place that doesn’t stay frozen all winter).
Removing weeds now is the best way to prevent them from rooting more firmly and becoming more of a problem later. If weeds have not gone to seed, I often compost them in place. Just pull them out and lay them down to decompose — this is called chop-and-drop composting.
Cut Back Dead Plant Matter
As with weeds, if plants have not gone to seeds I often compost them in place. Just chop them up with garden scissors and leave them as mulch (more on mulch below).
I will also take dead and spent garden plants and place them in the compost pile. Compost continues to decompose throughout the winter (just much slower).
Any plants that are diseased or pest-ridden should be burned, thrown away, or solarized.
Composting and Soil Regeneration
I will add compost to any garden bed that needs it at this point. However, I like to compost directly in garden beds whenever possible.
Instead of having to add the compost to the garden beds, I can just spread it where it is (and move the compost pile to another part of the garden).
Fall is a good time to do this so the soil organisms have a chance to strengthen the soil microbiome before winter.
If you are in a warmer area than I am (you don’t typically have snow cover), a cover crop may be a good idea. This will help add nitrogen back to the soil and improve soil structure throughout the winter.
Consider planting cover crops like red clover and winter rye to protect the soil from erosion, add organic matter, and fix nitrogen.
When spring arrives, you can chop and drop these cover crops for green manure. Then cover the area for 3-4 weeks with a tarp or sheet mulching).
Even better, use chickens to eliminate these crops to prepare for planting (give them about 4 weeks to do the job).
Applying a thick layer of organic mulch around your permaculture garden serves multiple purposes. It insulates the soil, protecting plant roots from frost, while also retaining moisture and suppressing weed growth.
I will often just add new mulch onto my garden at this point as last year’s mulch is decomposing and feeding the soil.
However, if there is a pest issue, I will remove the mulch and compost it before adding new mulch.
That’s what I’m doing this year as we had a ridiculously wet summer and there have been more slugs than I’ve ever seen! (I could also use some ducks or chickens, but that’s another topic entirely!)
Permaculture values local resources, so choose mulch materials that are readily available in your area. Options include straw, leaves, wood chips, and even old newspapers.
Winterizing Your Garden Perennials
If you have perennial plants in your garden here are some tips for tucking your plants in for the season:
- Selectively prune – many perennial plants benefit from pruning to improve airflow which cuts down on disease and pests. Light pruning can be done during the growing season. But a heavier pruning should wait until the plant is in dormancy. Typically, this will be during the winter, long after you put the rest of the garden to bed for the season.
- Mulch – mulching helps to keep weeds from growing and causing problems for your perennials. Apply a layer of mulch around 3 to 4 inches thick. Make sure not to pile it up against the perennial plant stems, as this can lead to rot. Leave a small space around the base of each plant.
I have blueberry bushes that I need to do both of these things for. There are cleavers growing up the branches of the blueberry bushes, smothering the bushes.
I plan on sheet mulching (using cardboard and then natural wood mulch). Then I will prune in the winter. I didn’t harvest quite a bit of our blueberries because the bushes were such a mess this year!
Cold Weather Plants
With the use of season extenders like cold frames and low tunnels, you may be able to plant cold-weather plants longer than you think. If you live in zones 5-6 or higher you should be able to grow some cold-weather crops throughout the winter. Kale, spinach, winter lettuce varieties, and certain types of carrots are a possibility.
Here in New Hampshire, these season extenders can help me grow cold-weather crops throughout the fall but not in winter (I would likely need a greenhouse and possibly heat).
If you do choose to do this, you will need to take very good care of your soil so it doesn’t get depleted from growing all year long. You could also rotate which bed you use for winter growing so each garden bed gets a rest and rejuvenation period.
In permaculture, water conservation and management are incredibly important. If you use rainwater catchment or other alternative watering systems, or if you have irrigation, fall is a good time to inspect all of these systems to make sure they are working and not damaged.
Additionally, if your climate freezes, you likely need to put hoses and other water system parts away so they won’t freeze.
Permaculture encourages harmonious coexistence with wildlife so creating habitat-friendly spaces in your garden, such as brush piles or birdhouses, is a great idea. These can attract beneficial insects and birds that help control pests when spring arrives.
I also like to leave seedy plants (like sunflowers) in the garden to feed the birds throughout the winter.
But it’s also important to consider which wildlife you don’t want to attract or feed. For example, a compost pile may attract bears and other animals in the winter, so you may want to switch to vermicomposting for the winter.
Permaculture Garden WInterization FAQs
When should you start winterizing your garden?
I will start cleaning up at the end of the growing season (late September for me in zone 4 — our first frost is around September 23rd). Your first frost date is a great benchmark but you will notice the slowing down of growth in the garden around this time naturally.
What should I do to winterize garden soil?
Follow the above suggestions and remember that in nature the soil is generally undisturbed (except for scratching around, digging, etc., by animals). So, healthy soil does not need to be raked, tilled, or turned. Mulching and adding organic matter will do wonders for your garden soil!
Permaculture Rest & Rejuvenation
Permaculture wants us to follow Mother Nature in making decisions for the land we are caring for.
Instead of thinking about winter as a dead period, it’s helpful to think about it as a rest and recovery period where the land can replenish and come out stronger in the spring. Winterizing your garden is one way to do that.
Remember to observe and adapt to the unique conditions of your region as you do this work. Each permaculture garden is a living system with its own quirks and characteristics, and this adaptability is one of the core strengths of permaculture.
By investing time and effort in these winter preparations, you’re not only protecting your garden but also nurturing the permaculture ethic of leaving the earth better than you found it. So, as winter’s chill settles in, take solace in knowing that your permaculture garden is well-prepared to weather the season and emerge stronger in the spring.
How do you prepare your permaculture garden for winter?