Now is the Time to Ready the Garden for Winter
Make sure to observe the VCE’s recommended planting dates and prepare for the average first frost dates in the fall. Along the coast of Northern Virginia (Tidewater area), the average first frost date is between October 19 and October 29; more inland (Piedmont area) the average first killing frost date is between October 19 and October 29. Throughout Zone 7, the first frost date is predicted between October 15 – November 15.
If you still have vegetables that are still producing fruit, pay attention to the first frost date warning and any sharp drops in nighttime temperature. At this time of year, cooler nights can still be followed by warm days that can extend ripening for some plants. However, tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, eggplant, and sweet potatoes are some of the plants that will not survive a frost. Consider fully harvesting these crops and storing inside your house while they ripen. For some crops, especially newly transplanted or emerging crops, cover plants on cooler nights with boxes, buckets, or burlap to help them withstand lower temperatures. Some crops, such as broccoli and spinach, can weather a frost and lower temperatures may actually enhance their flavor. Read more about the effects of frost on certain vegetables and what you can do to protect them in this article from Purdue Extension, Cold Weather Affects Vegetable Plants.
September Vegetable Gardening suggests planning for a year-round garden. A successful winter garden involves transplanting and/or direct sowing cool and cold season vegetables in early-late fall and protecting crops with a simple structure (such as floating row cover, cold-frame, or low tunnel) and insulating materials (such as mulch of straw or shredded leaves). Crops that do well include hardy leafy greens and herbs (spinach, arugula, endive, Asian greens, chard, kale, mache, parsley), some root crops (carrots, turnips, rutabagas, leeks, radishes), and some cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts). Follow recommended planting times for Northern Virginia. Resources are available on-line on how to build a season extension, such as a cold-frame or low tunnel.
Except for areas in your garden where you are planning for a winter harvest, now may be the time to put your garden to bed. Pull up all spent, annual plants and bag up the remains for compost (or trash, if some parts harbor possible disease). Leaving plant residue in the garden over winter could provide a place for disease and insects to reproduce, which will only make gardening more difficult next spring. Remove any plant stakes or trellises you used, hose them down, and find a dry place to store them for next year.
Now is also the time to prepare your soil for next year’s garden before your garden goes dormant over the winter. Adding and digging in compost and organic matter into your soil will improve its structure for next year. Recycle your raked yard leaves by shredding them with your lawn mower (to aid decomposition) and add these to your soil as well.
For more on fall vegetable gardening, including how to care for your soil and recommended winter cover crops, see this information from Virginia Cooperative Extension: Building Soil Organic Matter with Cover Crops and Cover Crop Performance.