How (and Why) to Leave Your Vegetable Patch Fallow Over Winter

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There are many gardeners who take pride in growing wholesome, organically-grown produce right throughout the year. But I’m not one of them. I’m a distinctly “fair weather gardener”.

Living in the UK as I do, not only can winters get pretty chilly, but the wind and rain can cause some serious problems. The earth turns to sludge, and my polytunnel has a habit of blowing away.

Just as importantly, I far prefer to be indoors myself in such weather, curled up on the sofa with the heating on. I derive no pleasure from getting dressed up in a souwester to brave the sub-zero temperatures.

Hardened gardeners will tell you it does you good, and that you’re wasting resources by not growing 24/7, but I garden for pleasure as much as anything. And when you work a full-time job, you can be very limited indeed when it comes to free time. If it rains on a Saturday that’s pretty much my week wiped out. Not like my retired neighbours who can make the most of any dry spells and sunshine that happen to come along.

But there are other reasons, too, to leave your vegetable patch fallow for the winter period. Here are some of my favorites…

Weeding Becomes Difficult

As the temperature drops, so native plants tend to slow down their growth rates – or die off entirely. This makes weeding far less critical in winter months than at other times of the year. What’s more, even if you do decide to weed it can be heavy going.

My clay-like soil turns into putty, and lifting a fork-full of it takes a huge amount of effort. An hour or two of digging in rain-sodden soil can do my back in for days to come. If weeding is less necessary, and less enjoyable, why not give up on it entirely for a while?

Winter Crops Aren’t As Exciting (to Me)

The range of fruits and vegetables that grow in winter can be quite limited. Personally I live for my freshly grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers; all things that I can’t grow in winter. While I’m not against a little kale or some leeks, in general I find vegetable gardening in winter just less exciting. This isn’t helped by the gray skies and the lack of flowers in my borders either.

Let Your Soil Recover

I didn’t get into vegetable growing to become an intensive farmer. I like to work *with* the soil, and so giving it a break can be very beneficial. It gives me a chance to increase the organic matter content, break up compacted soil, and prepare it for a fantastic growing season in the spring.

Plan for the Future (With a Blank Slate)

When I first started to grow my own vegetables I found it a constant jigsaw puzzle. Not only are you trying to maintain your crop rotation effectively, but in addition I like to plant crops where they’ll do best, and to plan for successions.

All this is more difficult when you’ve got a few odds and ends taking up space. Suddenly you can’t put garlic where you want to because you’ve still got brussel sprouts growing there, so you have to compromise.

There’s little I like more on a frosty winter’s day than getting out my seed catalogs and the reams of carefully collected seeds from the year before, and planning out next year’s planting. It’s an opportunity to really stop for a while, to consider what went well last year, and what could probably be improved on. With that in mind, I can put together plans for the next year, without having to worry about fitting around the few straggly plants left on the plot.

The Big “Spring Clean”

Spring and summer can be crazy months for the vegetable gardener. From battling against weeds to pruning and staking plants, through to harvesting and preserving. This means that I’m perhaps not able to maintain my gardening equipment quite as much as I would like in the growing season.

Letting your vegetable plot go fallow for a few months is therefore a great opportunity to get everything ready for the next season. Seed trays and pots are washed, dried and stacked neatly ready for action. Garden tools are cleaned and oiled. Disposable products like garden twine and plant labels are refilled, and I replace any equipment necessary.

In this way, as spring rolls around I’m in the best possible position to get off to a flying start, while other gardeners are still trying to decide what they’re doing.

Everyone Needs a Break

Lastly, it does us all good to take a break sometimes. Working a 40 hour week as a do (plus an hours commute each day) by the end of the summer I can start to tire of my vegetable plot. If I’m honest it can become more of a chore than a pleasure by late August. I can barely wait to take a break.

So I pack away my polytunnel in the shed, so that strong winds don’t worry me. Then I hole up indoors and dream of sunshine. The funny thing is that by the time the spring crocuses are poking their heads above the ground in spring I can barely wait to get my hands dirty again.

How I Put My Vegetable Plot to Bed

The process I use to leave my garden fallow has changed and developed over the years, but here’s my current routine…

Firstly, I give the whole plot a thorough dig and weed. Then I apply fresh compost from my compost bin and leave the soil to rest for a month or two. In this time, the soil becomes littered with fallen leaves; all a rich source of potassium and phosphorus.

Before winter really sets in the whole plot gets dug over a second time, to ensure it is weed free and that the organic matter is nicely worked into the soil. Then I apply a breathable black plastic membrane (sold in the UK as “weed control matting”) to the whole thing. This suppresses any weed growth but allows water to filter down.

In this way, when spring comes around, I can simply roll back the weed control matting to reveal perfect, nutrient-rich and weed-free soil. If I’m feeling particularly lazy I can even cut holes in the membrane with a garden knife and then plant directly through the holes into the earth.

Alongside this, everything gets pulled out of my shed for cleaning, tidying and organizing. My seed tins are checked, and any seeds I have dried on my windowsill are carefully placed into envelopes and labelled for the coming season. By the end, I have all my gardening equipment clean and in order, with easy access to my seed trays.

Then, I take a few guilt-free months off, eating all the food I’ve preserved, and dreaming of nesting birds and those first green shoots of spring.