Preparing for Winter: High Desert Tips for the Passive Season

The high desert summers can feel never-ending so by the time mid-September rolls around most new gardeners are feeling the burnout of a long season tending the garden.  It takes a special type of dedication to toil in the soil for 7 months in less-than-ideal growing conditions, but while the final stretch of harvest is upon us, autumn is the best time to prepare for spring (and ensure all of your hard work isn’t for naught!).  Here are some tips to successfully over winter your garden for an easy transition into next spring.


  1. Tidy Up Your Growing Space, But Not Too Much!

It’s important to remove and compost most finished plants and dead vegetation, then burn any plants that are showing signs of disease. As the weather changes and the blistering days give way to cool nights, we may see more plant disease so it’s important to clear out dead and dying vegetable plants before they catch and spread disease to the soil.  But not all plants- leave flowers as long as possible and even allow some to overwinter.   Dead vegetation provides a great winter home to beneficial bugs and pollinators, and the root systems provide valuable food for the soil microbes and fungi. 


  1. Plant! Wait…what? Yes, PLANT!

Autumn is a great time to plant perennials and trees, as well as sew native grasses.  Cooler days means less evaporation, so the soil can retain consistent moisture, meaning less watering for you and less stress on the plants. Also, with less energy spent on photosynthesis and growth, perennials are able to use most of their energy developing strong root systems.  You’ll still have to keep tabs on the moisture level throughout the winter, but a weekly check and watering will be a lot more tolerable than the daily concern of midsummer dry outs. 


  1. Add Compost and Organic Fertilizers

Your garden has used up a lot of the available nutrients in the soil, and while most of us add compost to prepare our gardens in the spring, adding compost and fertilizer in the fall will help regenerate the soil biome and keep it active all winter.  If you add young manure to your garden, fall is the best time to do it to let it naturally compost all winter- but be sure you know your source, as many de-wormers and antibiotics don’t break down fully in animals’ guts and can hurt or even kill off all the beneficial organisms in the soil.  We recommend adding Soilutions Soil Food All Purpose Nutrient Blend and covering with 1-2 inches of compost in early fall. In no till beds adding a rock mineral or two like rock phosphate or basalt dust will help keep the soil structure the correct tilth.   


  1. Refresh Mulch

We like our Forest Floor Mulch, but you can use straw or any wood chips you like.  Mulching will help keep moisture in the soil while also keeping it insulated, creating a perfect environment for fungi to thrive while protecting the growing microbial colonies. A good mulch layer will also protect the soil from eroding or compacting in heavy downpours.  In gardens that are completely empty, you can use shade cloth, landscape fabric, or even old sheets to protect the soil. 


  1. Cover Crop

What is a cover crop?  A cover crop is something planted in-between growing cycles. Cover crops help prevent soil degradation, nutrient loss, and act as a ‘place-holder’ in the absence of other crops.  Common cover crops are clover, winter rye, and hairy vetch, but all sorts of cereals, grasses, and legumes can be used.  Each cover crop offers its own benefits, so commercial farmers may choose selectively, but most backyard gardeners will do well with a cover crop mix from your local nursery.  We’re partial to incorporating daikon radish in late summer and letting it overwinter as it helps break up clay soils. Perennial clovers can be used as a both a cover crop and living mulch in areas where they won’t compete for nutrients and water, i.e., orchards or around trees or other deep-rooted plants where they won’t compete for nutrients and water.  If you are in an exposed area, densely planted cold-hardy grasses and legumes can protect your soil from the heavy New Mexico spring winds.  Sow seeds a few weeks after the addition of winter compost.