Winter in the Garden: What’s Happening Underground?
Get to know your soil and what you can do now to prep for spring planting.
This winter, the LadyBugs are learning to love our cold weather season more than ever. Winter asks us to pay close attention, take time to reflect on inner worlds, and get to know the intricacies of tree barks, seed husks and silhouettes.
While it’s easy to view nature as dormant or fallow during these slower months, there is life growing everywhere, from insects in their shelters to microbes and mycelia underground. Beneath layers of cardboard, compost and leaves, rich soil is brewing in future garden beds, teeming with microscopic organisms that digest the decaying plant matter from last year’s planting, and fill the soil with the nutrients that support and sustain life on earth.
Best Winter Garden Tasks
We can make the most of winter by taking time to build soil, care for your tools, tidy up garden beds and plan for planting season. These quick tips will help you stay connected to what’s happening in your garden while the real action is hidden underground.
1. Give Your Soil a Cozy Blanket of Compost
The LadyBugs love to start this process in late fall, before the ground freezes, and when leaves are abundant! Even if you’re just getting around to this task, your soil will still benefit from cozying up under a blanket of nutritious compost. Cover your garden bed with a layer of compost 1 to 2 inches thick. If you have a pile of leaves from autumns past hanging around in your yard, spread them over your compost in a thick sheet. Wood chips work great as well.
Andrea rakes a thick layer of leaves collected on-site for this lawn-to-garden conversion project. After the leaf layer was spread, we tucked everything in with natural fiber jute to "brew" for the winter. We can't wait to plant in this gorgeous living soil in the spring!
2. Clean and Sharpen Your Tools
Caring for your garden tools is essential to working efficiently and effectively. When your tools are in their best working condition, your plants will be happier, your body will feel better, and your time in the garden will be even more enjoyable.
Cleaning and sharpening your tools is easier than you might think! Watch this video to learn how to clean and sharpen common garden tools like loppers, hand trimmers, trowels and step edgers.
Pro Tip: Sharpen your shovels! The edge of your shovel is actually a cutting tool that gets a ton of wear and tear. Digging into rocky soil, cutting through roots, and constantly passing through soil particles will dull your shovel pretty fast, which means your work will take more effort and energy. You can sharpen shovels with a file or, better yet, a grinder.
3. Work on Garden Structures
Does the woodwork in your garden need a little love? Winter is the perfect time to see how your garden building projects are holding up. Weeds and roots can easily push through gaps and cracks in the wood framing around your raised beds. Maybe you’ve been dreaming of a new stone pathway, or the one you built last year is hidden under some pesky grasses.
Tidying up, patching and fixing the structures of your garden is a fun way to set the scene for your plants to fill the space again this season.
4. Pull Perennial Winter Weeds
Now that the plants you intentionally placed in your soil are done for the season, weeds creep in to fill the empty spaces. A weed is just a plant you didn’t invite to the party. While the LadyBugs try not to treat these unwelcome visitors too harshly, it’s typically wise to pull perennial weeds that come back from the root every year, like plantain, thistle and bindweed. Keep in mind these “weeds” do have benefits! Plantain is edible, and thistle can break up clay soil. Some winter annuals like chickweed, purple deadnettle and henbit can act as a cover crop, keeping soil in place and preventing noxious weeds from growing. Just remember that as useful as green ground covers are, they also prevent other plants from sprouting and getting the sun they need, so if you’ve purposely planted anything where you see ground cover weeds growing or spreading, you’ll want to pull them as well. It's all about making intentional choices for your space, with the health of your plants and soil at heart.
Photo from Tenth Acre Farm: Five Weeds You Want in Your Garden. Chickweed (Stellaria media) can be a beneficial ally, providing ground cover, rich compost or green mulch. It also has edible and medicinal properties for humans!
5. Plan Your Next Planting Seasons
After you’ve used the precious daylight hours to get some work done outside, settle in with a warm cup of tea and start dreaming up your future garden. Savvy gardeners always get their seeds as early as possible, but it’s even more important now. The world at large has rediscovered the joys and necessities of growing food at home, which is wonderful! But our favorite local nurseries and seed providers have already started running out, so the sooner you know what you want to plant this year, the better!
Check out some of our favorite native-focused nurseries:
Diakon Wilderness - Boiling Springs, PA
Edge of the Woods - near Allentown, PA
Hungry Hook Farm - Bainbridge, PA
Here are a few of our go-to garden planning tools for inspiration.
A Revolutionary New Vegetable Garden Planner - Mother Earth News
Ecological Gardening Resources + Tips - Native Plant Trust
If You Guild It, They Will Come: How To Grow A Permaculture Food Forest - Heather Jo Flores
Eco-Friendly Garden Planning - Lakewinds
GrowVeg - Garden Planning App
By Lancaster Conservancy with Elyse Jurgen of WaxWing EcoWorks.
BONUS: Seed Savers’ Club
Ready to level up your garden resilience? Save your own seeds and participate in a local seed swap! Here’s a great how-to guide by Seed Savers Exchange to get you started.
Find Your Community:
Insight and free resources from Heather Jo Flores (Food Not Lawns, Permaculture Women’s Guild)
Susquehanna Garden Share Facebook Group
Carlisle Seed Swap Facebook Group