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Even during the quiet months of winter, when nature rests and prepares itself for new growth, there is little time for the serious gardener to sit back with folded hands. Fruit and vegetables need protection in order to get through cold, snow, and frost.

Late fall’s first frosts signal that it is time to start preparing to protect your garden in winter. Protection is necessary if next year's vegetables and fruit are to be as bountiful as last year's crops.

   Prepare the Soil

The soil has to be made ready for winter, especially in the vegetable garden, where the size and health of your plants depends on the soil. After the last remnants of your crops have been cleared up, the soil lies barren and exposed to the elements. In the wild, a thick layer of plants and grasses will remain to protect the subsoil. In a garden, however, protection must be provided by you.

   Turn Over the Soil, or Keep it Loose?

Most gardeners till their soil in late fall. Heavy, loamy soil is turned over, leaving large clumps of soil exposed to water and cold. The repeated freezing and thawing of soil, as temperatures fall and rise, makes the soil loose and friable. In spring, this improved soil is the best foundation for crops to get off to a healthy start.

Continual spading is harmful to soil. In the process of turning over soil, anaerobic soil micro-organisms are brought to the surface, where they die; and organisms that need air are forced below, where they die for lack of air. For this reason, it is much better to just loosen most normal soil with a garden fork.

   Green Manuring

Green manuring, or growing a cover crop for the purpose of later digging it under, can be started in fall so that the soil does not lie exposed and unprotected during winter. Quick-growing plants loosen the soil with their roots and add nutrients. By fixing the soil while they grow, they also prevent loss of surface soil to rain, snow, and wind. In the spring, these crops are turned over into the soil, providing a natural fertilizer.

   Winter Protection for Vegetables

There are only a few crops that remain outdoors during winter. Vegetables that need warmth will have been harvested before the first sets in. Perennial crops, such as rhubarb, asparagus, artichokes, and some herbs, however, need a covering to protect them from nipping frosts.

Winter lettuces, such as lamb's lettuce and winter endive, can survive temperatures as low as 32 F for a short time; lower temperatures can damage them if there is no insulating blanket of snow on the ground. You can protect them by covering them with straw mats or some other material that can be spread over the plants and supported by stakes. The mats will also provide shade, thus minimizing fluctuations between sunny midday temperatures and nighttime frosts. But don't use conifer branches to cover your vegetables, especially lettuce; you will later find their needles in your salad. Some varieties of lettuce can continue to grow under tents all winter, but here you must make sure the plants have adequate ventilation.

   Cabbage Can Take A Lot, Too

Artichokes can be covered with evergreen boughs or straw mats to protect them against frost. Winter leeks are winter-hardy but must be covered with compost or straw if you intend to harvest them in winter. Green cabbage, 'Savoy'cabbage, and Brussels sprouts can survive most winters without protection, but in a severe winter, especially if there is no snow, it is wise to cover them with burlap.

   Culinary Herbs

Fresh herbs can be available in winter if you have transferred them to pots and set them on a windowsill. Warmth-loving herbs, such as rosemary and tarragon, if left in the ground, will greatly profit from a protective layer of evergreen boughs.

   Winter Protection for the Orchard

If you have planted your fruit trees and berry bushes in the right place, most of the protection they will need for winter will already have been provided. Low-lying locations situated in cold air pockets are just as detrimental as locations that are too high and exposed to wind. A dense hedge will protect an orchard from cold winter winds. The benefits of such a hedge are greatly underestimated; a hedge only 6 feet high provides good protection up to a distance of 100 feet.

   Young Trees Need Protection, Too

Well established fruit trees generally survive winters without damage; however, young trees need protection in their first few years. The potential damage to trees from frost is nothing, however, compared to that posed by rabbits and deer, which nibble at bark and branches. Where not protected by an animal-proof garden fence, the tree trunks should be covered with wire mesh to keep animals from getting at them. Special trunk "sleeves" are available.

   To Mulch or Not to Mulch

The question of whether to provide mulch around the base of fruit trees and berry bushes as a means of protecting both soil and trees in winter is a matter of much debate among gardening experts. Lawn clippings and leaf mold help to retain moisture in the soil and compensate for fluctuations in temperature. Straw, on the other hand, is a magnet for mice. Because many mulching materials provide a haven for rodents, some experts discourage the practice of mulching trees and shrubs in winter.


Whitewashing tree trunks keeps bark from cracking from the winter sun.
A metal cuff prevents trunk damage by wild animals.
A sticky band attached to a cloth and secured with wires protects a tree trunk from winter moths.
A woven mat suspended on wooden posts and a mound of evergreen boughs protect tender crops against frosts.

   Protection Against Rodents

A palisade-like ring of thorny branches around the trunk of a tree is a simple, inexpensive, and effective method of protecting trees from gnawing rodents. Blackthorn and hawthorn branches suit the purpose well. Some gardeners recommend setting out clippings near trees as winter food for hungry


Leaf mold provides ideal winter protection for many types of crops. But don't use leaves gathered from fruit trees because they harbor fungal spores that may attack new growth in spring.

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