We’ve all been there. It’s the end of a long market gardening season. We’re tired and in need of a break. The time to rest is now, right?! But alas, it is not. Because as we look around, there are stray buckets everywhere, dull tools in random places, piles of debris that need to be taken to the compost pile, and bare soil in danger of eroding away.
I’ve learned the hard way that the best thing you can do for your spring self is to properly prepare your fields and clean up your farm before winter arrives. It’s much better than allowing snow melt to erode your precious raised beds or realizing that a family (or 3) of mice have taken up shop in your high tunnel.
Follow along with this list of important chores you should complete on your farm before the off-season to ensure a productive and seamless spring.
1. REFLECT ON THE SEASON
Although this is not a chore you need to do IN your gardens, I am listing this first because I believe it is one of the most important. Reflecting on the year while it is fresh in your mind is key. Be sure to include anyone who helped out, including volunteers, family and friends, employees and farm hands. This will give you a clear picture of what happened throughout the season and help you make a strong plan moving forward.
We always sit down and make a list of our successes, challenges and missed opportunities as we are wrapping up a season. In this way we have a clear record of everything that happened and ideas on how to do better next year.
2. MAKE A LIST OF SUCCESSES
It can be hard to see all the good things happening when you are in the midst of starting seeds, surviving hot days, weeding, transplanting and harvesting. It is important to stop and really think about what went well. Think back to your goals for the year and realize what you have accomplished.
Did you secure new wholesale accounts?
Did you increase your overall sales?
Did you successfully grow a new crop?
Have you consistently received great feedback on your flower bouquets?
Were you able to grow lettuce through the hot summer?
Recognize the wins, no matter how small they may seem. Even though we are tired and sometimes cranky, we find quick moments to “cheers” each other after a long day or high five in the field to celebrate our wins, and you should too!
3. RECALL THE CHALLENGES
This is equally as important and also a great idea to do mid-season as well as at the end. That way, if needed, you can pivot and make changes to a sticking point in your business and improve upon it for the second half of the season. Why wait to fix something that isn't working?
It’s all about making the most of your time during your work day and finding the most efficient ways to work in YOUR space.
4. RECOGNIZE FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES
Always be on the lookout for what next season could hold for you. It's important to recognize what’s going on in your neck of the woods and how it might affect your business. Some examples of things to keep your eyes peeled for:
A sign for a new farmers’ market nearby in search of vendors
An ad stating that your local library is looking for someone to give demonstrations on how to make flower bouquets
You hear that a local farmer recently retired, leaving a gap in the local food market
Or perhaps you see an opportunity to turn your backyard flower hobby garden into a sustainable business after a few friends and family members urge you to follow your passion for growing and arranging flowers. (More on Growing Flowers here.)
It’s good to keep challenging yourself and see opportunities that may be right in front of you. This way you will have items to work on during the off season, or what I call, my “indoor farming season”.
5. REMOVE WEEDS AND POTENTIALLY DISEASE RIDDEN CROP RESIDUE FROM FIELDS
Cleaning up in fall is not only important for aesthetics but also for weed, disease and pest control in future years. It can be tempting to simply leave piles of spent vegetable plants and pulled weeds around your plots, but do yourself a favor and take them to a compost or burn pile instead.
The frustrating fact about weeds is, they can still spread and cause you trouble after they are pulled if not truly terminated. Weed seeds can be dispersed around your land by animals and precipitation in your off season, popping up at the worst possible time; spring! It’s best to clear them out of your fields after pulling them so they are far from your fields in the event that they re-root.
You should remove diseased (or potentially diseased) plants from your fields and add them to a burn pile or green waste bin in order to decrease the risk of it overwintering in your soil. This could include fungal diseases such as Septoria leaf spot, early blight and bacterial spot on tomatoes, Fusarium wilt on cucumbers, or early blight on nightshades (to name a few).
Other plants such as cucurbits should be removed for pest control. Squash bugs and Striped Cucumber Beetles live as adults in the soil and lay their eggs. In the spring, likely right after you have planted cucumbers and squash, the larvae will emerge from the soil at the base of your plants and feed on the vulnerable seedlings. Your plants won’t stand a chance!
Pro tip: Some growers gently till their plots in the fall, exposing any eggs or larvae to the cold weather, killing them before they hibernate.
6. CLEAN GARLIC AND PREPARE PLOTS FOR FALL GARLIC PLANTINGS
If you have grown garlic before, then you know the joys of growing, curing, and cooking with your very own homegrown. Properly preparing and amending beds for fall plantings is key as to ensure the cloves have the nutrients they need to grow all winter long.
Preparing Your Garlic Plots
If you have the space to spare and the time to add a summer cover crop to your garlic beds, this is best. Many growers, ourselves included, use buckwheat often in the summer because its seeds are fairly inexpensive, it is a very quick turnaround crop (just 4-5 weeks), and it adds organic matter to the soil. Plus, pollinators love it! If you want to learn more about adding beneficial insect habitat as you plan, this article is a helpful place to start.
As a bonus, buckwheat extracts phosphorus from the soil during its growing stage and stores it. When reincorporated into the soil or used as a mulch, the phosphorus becomes available to crops. Garlic needs lots of phosphorus in the fall to help establish a strong root system before going dormant for the wintertime.
If you don’t have the time to grow a cover crop, don’t fret. Just be sure to find a good quality, organic compost to add to your beds. In addition, you’ll want to add a bulb specific fertilizer and work it into your soil before planting. As mentioned above, you want something high in phosphorus and potassium like rock phosphate or bone meal. Save the nitrogen heavy fertilizers for the spring when you’ll want to encourage above ground growth.
Give the soil a once over with a broadfork if you have one as garlic prefers loose soil. Once your beds are shaped, amended and raked out, it’s time to plant!
Simply make a small trench, about 2 inches deep, with the backside of a garden tool like a hoe or rake. If you want your line to be perfectly straight, you can tie a string to both ends of the bed and make the trench along the string. In a 30” wide bed, you can comfortably plant 4 garlic across, spacing the rows of 4 at 6 inches apart. Check with your garlic supplier for more planting instructions that may be variety specific.
Simply take your seperated garlic cloves (leaving as much paper on as possible for protection) and place them in the trench according to your spacing: pointy side UP, flat side DOWN. This is vital as the pointy side is where the plant will sprout from and you want that to be pointing toward the soil surface. Otherwise, your plants may be stunted. Cover the seed cloves up with soil removed when you made your trench and tamp it down.
Then apply a layer of mulch to protect the soil from the cold and keep weed seeds from blowing in. If you are in a cold region, 4-6” of organic straw or mulched leaves is a good idea, otherwise, 1-2” should suffice. You’ve now successfully tucked your garlic in for the winter!
7. PLANT COVER CROPS
Why plant cover crops? Protecting your soil before winter is extremely important.
Cover crops help decrease soil erosion from rain, wind and snow melt. This happens above and below ground if your cover crops are well established and have a strong root system.
They add organic matter
Help improve soil fertility
Can serve as mulch for springtime crops
It’s important to sow winter cover crops long enough before winter so they become well established. The more above and below ground mass there is, the better.
There is a whole slew of great cover crop options such as vetch, field peas, legumes, tillage radishes, and sunflowers. Depending on what region you live in, these may or may not survive the winter. You can intentionally choose a winter-kill crop, allowing the died-back plant matter to serve as mulch to protect your soil. You should reach out to your local extension office to find out what would work best in your region. For additional information on planting, managing, and terminating cover crops check out Fall Cover Cropping.
Here in zone 5a, the best non-winter kill cover crop available to us is winter rye, which should be sown August-September. For tips on how to use silage tarps to germinate cover crops, check out our article on using silage tarps on the farm!
If you didn’t get your cover crop in the ground in time, a mulch of organic straw can be added to protect your soil from erosion that can happen during spring snow melt.
8. PREPARE FOR FIRST FROST
If you have fall crops in the ground, they may or may not be able to withstand a frost. Be sure you know what your crops can handle and protect them as needed. Hoops and row cover are key to have on hand in the fall. Here in zone 5a in New Hampshire, our first potential frost date is September 20th. However, since our farm is located in an elevated town, we know getting frost is possible if the forecast is calling for temperatures between 35-40°. Since you can never be too safe, we like to prepare for 32° before it’s too late and we lose crops.
HAVE HOOPS AND ROW COVER READY FOR USE
If you have cool weather crops in the ground that won’t survive a hard frost, you’ll want to hoop those beds in preparation for being protected with row cover. We space these out evenly to fit 7 low hoops in a 50 foot bed. You can easily make your own low hoops out of EMT using a hoop bender like the 4 foot one offered here.
Sort through your row cover for the thickness you need. At our farm we use a thinner frost blanket and simply double up if needed. If you are planning to leave the row cover on long term or you live in a colder region, you might consider investing in a heavier weight like a 4.0 oz. frost blanket.
Be sure to fill weight bags nice and full (we fill them with rocks we pull from our fields) in order to hold the row cover down nice and safely, otherwise wind could blow it off your precious plants. Place these out at each hoop so you are ready when inclement weather strikes.
Check your weather regularly so that when there is a chance of freezing temperatures, you can simply pull out the row cover and secure it over your crops.
LEAVE COLD WEATHER CROPS BE IN ORDER TO SWEETEN UP
Cold hardy crops like kale, spinach, Swiss chard and some lettuces will actually get sweeter and more delicious after a good frost or two! You don’t need to worry about these too much so long as they are well established before frost sets in.
CHECK GREENHOUSE/HOOP HOUSE PLASTIC AND SIDE WALLS
It’s a good idea to take a fall farm walk to make a general to-do list. This should include doing small repairs to greenhouse plastic that may have torn during the season, fixing any issues with roll down walls of hoop houses and high tunnels and ensuring there are no gaping holes along the bottom where rodents and wind can slip through.
This is also a good opportunity to do some tidying up in any of your different buildings. The garden shed and propagation house at our farm tend to be a dumping ground throughout the season so we do one big clean out and organization of those before winter. It’s important not only for everything to be clean, but also to be put away in its proper place so it’s easy to locate items in the springtime.
CLEAN, SHARPEN AND FIX TOOLS AND MACHINERY
This is an easy chore to ignore until spring but I promise you’ll be happy you completed it when it comes time to jump in and grow stuff. The last thing you need is to be bogged down with dirty trays and dull harvest knives when you’re excited to start your season.
Things to have a look at:
Cell and microgreen trays
Hand tools like trowels, broadforks, rakes and hoes
Mowers, tillers and tractors
Hoop houses, greenhouses, garden sheds and any other infrastructure
There are lots of YouTube videos on how best to sharpen tools but basically you’ll want to get a sharpening file, whetstone and/or a grinder appropriately sized for your tools. Brush off any caked on dirt/dust and any rust present with a gentle sandpaper before starting any sharpening.
Harvest knives, pocket knives and shears should be sharpened with a whetstone whereas hoes, shovels and rakes can be sharpened with a large mill file. Any dings in a shovel can be grinded out to help get the shape back.
After your tools are cleaned up and sharpened, it’s a good idea to put some mineral oil on them before storing them for the season. We installed a magnetic knife strip in our high tunnel a few years ago and it’s a game changer. I recommend this to anyone who has lots of hand tools like we do!
Giving your tractor a once over is the least you can do for it after it has worked hard for you all season long. The next best thing would be to clean it of any dirt and debris and check all its fluids, the engine and belts, replacing and lubricating anything that needs it. Consider calling your local dealer to schedule a maintenance visit.
Covering your equipment to protect it from the elements or storing it in a shelter for the winter is best.
CELL AND MICROGREEN TRAY SANITIZATION
Keeping trays sanitized is super important, especially when growing microgreens. Microgreens are so delicate that some growers do not wash them before selling. You want to ensure the safest product is getting into the hands of your customers. Any pathogens still present on microgreen trays when starting out could be bad news.
Starting seeds in cell trays that may have lingering bacterial or viral diseases on them could affect not only the germination rate, but also the overall performance of the plants. Your goal should be to give vulnerable seedlings their best shot and clean cell trays are a great place to start.
Sanitizing cell trays is not difficult so once you get the hang of it, you should simply build the task into your daily or weekly routine. Check out our article “How to Wash and Care for Seedling Trays” for further information.
Cold weather means hibernation for many creatures, including pesky rodents that could do some serious damage to your gardens and supplies like tarps and weight bags during winter months. Try not to provide animals with any cozy spaces to make a nest for the winter like dark bags, piles of plant debris, newspaper or row cover, etc.
If you have buildings with lots of nooks and crannies, keeping traps set all winter may be best. Just be sure to check them periodically and reset them as needed. You can also try deterring mice, voles, and moles with moth balls, cayenne pepper, or essential oils such as balsam fir, peppermint, clove, and cinnamon. Just soak cotton balls in the oil and place them around areas the rodents frequent. They hate the smell, so they should vacate the site if you replenish the oil regularly.
Another option is adopting a barn cat to really help decrease the rodent population!
MAKE A PLAN TO REST
Perhaps most importantly, give yourself permission to rest. We always try not to think or talk about farming from Thanksgiving until after the new year so we can focus on resting our bodies, spending time with loved ones, and enjoying our holiday season.
While it may feel like a luxury to lounge on the couch with a cup of tea binge-watching your favorite show, just remind yourself how hard you work during the season. You deserve it! Take some time for yourself, so you go into next season well-rested, mentally and physically, so you can crush it.
Whether you are planning to open up a new gardening space, or if you want more information about the soil you are already using, a mason jar test and a quick reference to the soil pyramid chart can give you a lot of information about your soil.
When you have a limited amount of space to work with, it is best to focus on the crops that can have the biggest impact when paired with easy to store pantry staples. Read more about growing food in small spaces!
Preserving the harvest has been a goal of growers and farmers since the advent of agriculture. Whether through drying, root cellars, pickling or fermentation, humans have always sought to increase access to nutritious foods outside of their growing season. Read about ways to preserve food!