How to Stay Connected to Your Garden in the Fall (and Winter)

Fall and winter pose an interesting challenge for gardeners. On one hand, it’s really nice to have some forced time away from your garden to rest, relax, and recuperate. On the other hand, if you’re in a cold climate (like me, in Wisconsin), you might start to feel pretty disconnected from your garden over the long and bitterly cold winter months.

As we start our first full winter in our new home in Wisconsin, I’m already reminded daily that our winter garden is going to look (and feel) much different than our winter garden in Portland, OR. Instead of planting crops that will (usually) make it through the winter in Portland, I pulled almost everything out of my vegetable garden and covered the bare soil in a thick layer of straw. Despite this, I’m pretty sure our kale is already frozen and it’s only November!

So, how do you stay connected to your garden in fall and winter, especially in the frigid northern states? This question has been running through my mind a lot lately, so perhaps you’re wondering the same thing, too.

Here are some ideas:

Coldframes

If you’re new to fall and winter gardening and haven’t heard of coldframes, you’re in for a treat! Coldframes are essentially small greenhouses. There are tons of prefab coldframes available, but you can also build your own. The purpose of a coldframe is to extend your gardening season. These mini-greenhouses can be used to start seeds earlier in the spring and grow veggies later into the fall and winter.

My husband built a cold frame for me when we lived in Portland. He bought a used glass shower door and constructed a cedar box to fit the door. The coldframe started out in our garden, then I moved it up onto our back deck where I would have easier access to the veggies in winter. It just happened to be the perfect size to fit four long milk crates. I loved having hardy greens right outside my back door (literally)!

As you can see from the picture, the back of the coldframe is taller than the front so that the glass door (which is missing in this picture due to strong wind that ripped it off…. but it was eventually repaired ; ) is at an angle to better catch the sunlight. The only drawback with coldframes is the available growing space inside the coldframe (oh, and wind - use caution if you prop the door open!!!). The plants in front would often grow into the window, while the plants in back had more vertical room to grow.

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Greenhouses

Greenhouses are another excellent season extender, and one that can actually keep your growing season active throughout the fall and winter. Greenhouses come in all shapes and sizes and can have a ton of bells and whistles, or not. They range from simple plastic hoop houses to elaborate glass structures with heating, lights, and vents. I won’t get into details of greenhouses since they are already well-known. There are tons of benefits to adding a greenhouse to your home garden. The two major drawbacks of greenhouses are the cost and space requirements.

I would love a greenhouse in Wisconsin so that I can store my potted herbs inside it during the winter. I would also start seeds earlier in the spring and use it to grow hardy greens throughout the winter so that we had access to super fresh veggies year-round.


Planning and Design

Garden planning and design are wonderful tasks for the colder months, especially since these things tend to happen indoors. Thinking about and planning your garden for the following year will keep help keep you connected to your garden, even if it’s covered in a foot of snow! The best part of planning and designing your garden in the fall and winter is that you will be ready to plant as soon as the weather allows in spring. If you haven’t already signed up, take advantage of my free designing training series this fall and winter.



Winter Observations

I know, winter is a cold time of year and being outside doesn’t always sound like the most exciting idea. But spending some time outside and taking in the beauty of your garden can be really refreshing and you might be surprised by what you see! Some plants hold onto their berries in the winter, snow and ice can cover bare branches, and evergreens stand out against the dreary background. Enjoy these lovely sights while they last!

Observing your site in all different seasons is also a really good idea, from a design standpoint. To create a really functional design that works for your unique site year round, you first need to understand your outdoor space in every season - yes, that also includes fall and winter. How is the space used by people and wildlife? What are the drainage patterns for the melting snow or rain? Do you have a prime sledding hill that attracts the neighbor kids (we do!). How can your design support these and other patterns of use on your site during the non-gardening months?

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Shopping for Seeds and Plants

If you’ve taken the time to plan your veggie garden or even design your entire edible landscape, the next step will be to purchase seeds and plants. Winter is a great time to get a jump start on your garden-related shopping (or browsing). I find that planning my garden and filling my online shopping cart can be really satisfying when I can’t actually be outside working in my garden. Plus, I’m totally ready to go once spring does finally arrive. Online shopping helps me to stay in my budget since I take my time shopping (based 100% on my plans and design), rather than impulse buying at the last minute.

The exciting news is that there are more and more high quality seeds, edible landscape plants, and medicinal plants available through online nurseries. In my full online course, My Own Edible Landscape, I have a list of online nurseries that specialize in edible and medicinal plants. It’s such a great resource for design students who have completed their edible landscape designs and are ready for the next step: installation!

As a side note, I love that edible and medicinal plants are available online through smaller niche plant nurseries, but I’m also a huge advocate for shopping at locally owned businesses. Please also consider supporting the “little guys” as much as possible, both online and locally. ; )

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Winter Crafts

Evergreens and brightly colored twigs (like from red twig dogwoods) in your landscape provide all the materials you need to create your own holiday decor. Use these natural materials to make wreaths, festive planters, and more. Remember to take your pruners out with you on your winter observations walks. You never know what natural treasures you might find!

I made the wreath below in Portland, OR using branches from the massive Doug Fir in our backyard. Small branches were easily broken off in windy weather, so I always had evergreen plant material to work with; I just needed to walk out my back door!

Here are some ideas for other fall and winter garden craft projects: bird houses, insect hotels, crafts with dried seeds and flowers, birdseed ornaments, and a frozen fruit buffet for the birds (I haven’t tried this, but pictures I’ve seen look so beautiful! Once the weather is below freezing, lay out a pleasing pattern of sliced citrus and berries in a bird bath and fill it with small amount of water. The fruit will freeze in place. It’s beautiful and will help feed the birds!).

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Now that I’ve shared some of my favorite ways to stay connected to my garden during fall and winter, what other ideas do you have? How do you keep your garden connection alive when the temperature drops below zero? I’d love to hear from you! Post your comments and questions below.


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