With some honorable exceptions most fruit and vegetable plants die off or enter a period of dormancy over the winter months. Having woken up in spring and spent the summer maturing and providing crops, the plants will either have completed their life cycle or will need to essentially recharge their batteries over winter so they are ready to repeat the process the next year.
Given all the edible, aesthetic and experiential delights that your plot will hopefully have providing over the flowering, growing and harvesting periods of the year, it is only right perhaps that you prepare it well for the colder months ahead – and doing so will be a great step to ensuring that your permaculture comes back to full vigor when spring arrives.
Plan for winter crops
One of the best ways to prepare your permaculture plot for winter is to plant some edible cultivars that will give you crops during the winter months. Cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and chard can be sown in the late summer to give you green leafy crops in the winter, when most other plants on the site have either died off or gone into a dormant state. Indeed, the flavor of these types of vegetables is actually improved by exposure to the colder temperatures of winter. Carrots, as well as their close cousins parsnips, are also suitable winter crops, as the first few frosts of the season will cause their starches to turn to natural sugars and add the distinctive sweetness to the vegetables. Using straw mulch over such root vegetables will further extend the growing season, giving you vegetables even in the coldest months. You can also plant vegetables such as winter squash and pumpkins, but these should be harvested after the first light frost of winter, as harder frosts and snowfall can damage the crop.
For other plants whose growing seasons are over by winter, the preparation for the coming months is different. Most annual vegetables, including peas, beans squash and tomatoes, will have provided a crop and died off by late fall. These should be removed from the bed. If the plants are not diseased, add them to the compost pile (or if you don’t have room for a compost pile, pull them up and leave to rot on the soil). If they show evidence of disease burn them to avoid the disease persisting on your plot. Also remove any stakes or other supporting material from the beds, which could provide overwintering sites for pests and diseases. Once the garden beds are clear of plant debris, it is a good opportunity to prepare the soil for the planting and growing season to come. Add organic compost, well-rotted manure or leaves that have fallen from deciduous trees to the soil. Doing so will promote microorganism activity in the soil so that the nutrients ion the compost will be incorporated into the soil before it freezes. This means that come spring, when the ground thaws, it will ready for planting, with a good nutrient quotient. You might also consider planting a winter cover crop, such as rye, buckwheat or clover. This will mean the soil is not left exposed and will help add nutrients and improve the structure of the soil.
Perennials remain in the soil over the winter, so have a different method of preparation. During late fall, water the perennial plants well. This will give them access to moisture even when the ground may be frozen (and so prevent percolation of rain or melted snow moisture). Once winter has descended and the ground is frozen, cut perennial vegetables back to around three inches from the ground. Mulch well to cover the plants, with straw, leaves or pine needles. This helps to regulate the temperature of the roots, as if the soil were left exposed to the cycle of freezing and thawing that typically occurs during the winter is likely to damage the roots. Such types of organic mulch are also suitable for perennial crops, as they do not suffocate the soil, allowing for aeration whenever the ground is not frozen. If there is a window of higher temperatures during the winter months, tale advantage by watering the plants.
As with perennials, water trees well during the fall so that they have ample moisture stocks to see them through the snow-555835_640winter, and use any unfrozen periods during the winter months to replenish their moisture levels. In contrast, avoid giving deciduous trees too much compost or manure during the fall. As the temperatures drop, this signals deciduous trees to drop their leaves. Adding nutrients to the soil at this time will typically stimulate late-season growth that will be useless. Leave fallen leaves on the ground to provide natural mulch. Evergreen trees are, of course, adapted to the colder months, but remember that by keeping their needles they will still be transpiring moisture as they photosynthesize. Mulching will help preserve soil moisture, but water well when the ground is not frozen.
Different varieties of herbs require different preparations for winter. Sage and thyme, for instance, will fend well for themselves left in the garden, going dormant in late fall and revivifying in the spring (remember to cut some branches before the frost stops their growth, so you can dry them in a cool, dry place and use in the kitchen for adding to winter stews and casseroles). Parsley has a long root so does not lend itself to transplanting in pots to move indoors, so will appreciate a cover on the coldest nights, while rosemary can be potted up to be moved to a warmer sheltered spot or indoors for the winter.
If you have a flock of chickens on your permaculture plot, you shouldn’t need too much preparation to keep them comfortable through the winter. Chickens huddle together for warmth, but if temperatures are very cold you may wish to use a heater in the coop for freezing nights. You could also insulate the coop, but be sure not to make it airtight, as this will cause humidity to build up – with the potential to cause frostbite – as well as a build up of harmful ammonia for the chickens’’ droppings. Also remember that you are likely to need to feed your chickens more during the winter as their foraging will be limited by dormant plants and limited insect activity, as well as frozen ground. Make sure fresh water provision does not freeze over.