As we roll into December and the weather cools, nighttime frosts begin to wither the more tender annuals, while the perennials drop their leaves or otherwise prepare for the coming months of cold. Putting in a little effort now can make a huge difference come spring time. Here are a few things we did here at the SSPP to prep the gardens for winter.
Chop-n-Drop Fibrous Plant Material
As we explained in our tutorial on chop-n-drop living mulch, allowing plant matter to decompose in-place rebuilds soil fertility with minimal effort. We took the fibrous skeletons of annual plants (basil, arugula, pigweed, etc.), and perennial plants that regrow from the roots (anise hyssop, skirret, sunchoke, etc.) and cut them down to the ground and into smaller pieces with a pair of sharp pruning shears, then left them on the top of the soil to be covered with leaves, compost or mulch.
Covering the soil with leaves from the side of the road, as well as compost or other organic material, keeps the soil warmer and healthy. Come spring time, it will be mostly broken down and makes excellent soil for planting in! Plus, it keeps those leaves out of the streets where they lead to car accidents, and eliminates the need for gas-powered trucks that drive them miles away.
Layering Canes and Vines
Species like blackcap raspberries and hardy kiwi can be reproduced asexually by burying the tips of the canes or the vines in soil over winter. By spring, the buried portion of the plant will have rooted and can then be left in place as part of a living fence or cut free and transplanted elsewhere.
Mulching Around Perennials (and Stool Layering)
Many of the plants we work with at the Southside Permaculture Park are perennials, meaning they come back year after year. Perennials increase food security because they are more resistant to extreme weather like drought, and they sequester more atmospheric carbon in roots and biomass, thereby combating climate change and reducing extreme weather in the first place. Perennials also reduce labor in the garden be reducing the need for annual planting and young-plant maintenance; once established, they require little maintenance and can mostly fend for themselves.
One thing we can do to increase their productivity, however, is to mulch around them in the late fall / early winter to reduce damage from hard freeze events. These include trees and shrubs that produce new growth from above-ground woody tissue, like persimmon, elderberry, and currents, as well as plants that regrow from underground roots and tubers, like onions, echinacea, anise hyssop, and sunchokes. A few minutes with a rake or a shovel in the fall could mean significant increases in yields the following year.
Stool layering is a technique for asexually reproducing multi-branched woody shrubs. Essentially, the mother plant is mounded up with some kind of loose soil material so that multiple shoots are buried. After a full growing season, these shoots will have rooted beneath the soil and can be cut free from the mother plant and transplanted elsewhere. If not dug up the following year, the plant simply become incredibly well-rooted, allowing it to produce abundance of fruit and stay strong even in more extreme weather conditions. This technique works great for plants like elderberries and currants.
While a great technique for reproduction that preserves all of the features of the mother plant, it is important to allow some plants to reproduce by seed to preserve genetic diversity. Our partners at Edible Acres have a great video on this technique.
Many woody perennials like fruit and nut trees, many berries, and even some herbs require a period of cold humidity followed by a period of warmth in order to germinate their seeds. This dormancy prevents the seeds from germinating in the winter when conditions are harsh, and ensures that they only start growing once conditions are right in the spring. Many nurseries and other resources recommend keeping seeds wrapped in a wet paper towel in plastic bag in the refrigerator for 2-3 months, but we think that’s quite excessive. After all, these plants evolved to break dormancy by sitting in the ground over winter, so why not let them do exactly that!?
Placing seed in the ground in late fall for plants you want to propagate can be a great way to get them to germinate, without using huge amounts of energy for artificial refrigeration. Planting the seeds in a small pot or container and then burring the container up to the lip can help tremendously with transplant later in the spring, as the roots will be contained to the pot. Whether you use a pot or not, be sure to place a sign or marker where you plant the seeds so you remember what went where when things start to come up in the spring.
Remembering to be Hopeful
As winter comes around an the green plants die back, things can look sad. The days get shorter and we spend less time outside, and that can have serious effects on our mental health. When things start dying, it’s easy to see it as a metaphor for all of society, and that can make a person really sad. It’s important to remember that while things do die back and go dormant, winter doesn’t last forever, and they will come back. Everything comes in cycles; this is true of green plants and the seasons, as well as civilizations and ideologies. Things aren’t looking great right now, and it’s easy to feel hopeless and helpless. But spring will come. And life will go on : )