Transition to the fall: It’s time to winterize your Taos garden

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The seasons are slowly shifting from the long days of summer to the shorter (and cooler) days of fall. Instinctively, we begin to turn our attention inward, preparing for winter by gathering firewood and preserving the food from our gardens and orchards.

It’s likely that a hard freeze will come by the end of October, said Nan Fischer, founder of the Taos Seed Exchange. She points out that, in Taos, there are many micro-climates. El Prado has already had a hard freeze, while other areas have experienced only the first frost. Native plants and wildflowers, along with cosmos, and hardy crops like lettuce, chard and other greens may still grow for a time, depending on your micro-climate. Some crops improve with cold nights. “Apples get sweeter with a frost. So does kale,” Fischer said.

After your garden experiences a hard freeze, there are some steps that you can take to get it ready for successful planting next spring. “Clean up, add compost, mulch, plant cover crops and drain irrigation systems,” Fischer said.

Not everything needs to be cleaned out of the garden after a freeze. “I tell people to leave dead flower stalks so the birds can feast off the seeds all winter. They also add visual interest — so pretty when they collect snow,” Fischer said.

A sunny fall afternoon can be a good time to clean up the garden, bringing in the potted plants that will over-winter inside. Now is a good time to clean and sharpen the tools that you will need next year. Garden experts recommend composting dead annuals, but discarding any plants with fungal disease in the trash. Also remember to drain hoses and store outdoor pots empty and upside down.

Advice, evaluation

When customers come to Petree Nursery, they are often looking for advice, as well as seeds and other supplies. Sylvia Petree said that their customers ask about what plants to cut back and how to fertilize for the winter.

Petree said that cutting back is largely a personal preference. Echoing the advice of Fischer, she says that you can leave the seeded plants for birds and the grasses for winter, or you can choose to make it neat and tidy now. “Remove fallen and damaged fruit to discourage animals. You can winterize perennials and trees with an appropriate slow release fertilizer prior to mulching,” she said.

At Petree, staff said to remove plant material from the vegetable garden that will not break down over winter, including tomato stems and roots. Now is a good time to add soil amendments that are slow to break down, such as rock phosphate and Azomite. Finish the process with two inches of mulch on flower beds and around trees, keeping the mulch four to six inches from the tree truck.

“Mulch will build the soil and help retain moisture over the winter,” Petree said. She adds that the fall is a good time to evaluate your garden to determine what grew well and what did not.

Asked for advice that might be particular to Taos, Petree says “Be aware of varmint activity. Protect tree trunks with a tree warp or screen material. Water trees during winter, twice a month. A hose and a hose reel will be very helpful during the winter.”

Farm transitions

Local farmers are getting ready to put farms to bed for the winter.

Mario and Alejandro Gonzales of Gonzales Farms in Velarde sell their apples, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and other produce at the Taos Farmers Market. They’ve been roasting their green chile at the market in the past few weeks. The brothers have worked on the farm since they were kids. In anticipation of a hard freeze, the two are getting ready to clear out all the remaining crops. After the fields are clear, they will plant garlic. They say garlic never sleeps.

Winter run

At Red Mountain Farms in Abiquiú, the farmers are planning to continue growing potatoes and garlic all winter long. Their garden doesn’t have to be put to bed for the winter.

Daniel Martinez and Jerris Hogue, part of the production team at Red Willow Farm at Taos Pueblo, say gardening can be continued into the winter. They advise that if you think your soil was depleted of too many nutrients this summer season, consider growing a winter cover crop to replenish the soil. It is also helpful to fallow a garden section if you have grown a heavy feeder such as tomatoes or corn.

They recommend enriching the soil to keep it healthy and say compost is one of the best supplements to keep your soil thriving. Red Willow Executive Director Addie Lucero calls cover crops “green manure” and says they are a good way to build soil fertility.

The Red Willow Farm team notes that they have an advantage due to their two large, heated greenhouses that allow them to grow winter vegetables. However, if you don’t have a heated greenhouse, they said, you can extend the season for vegetables with a cold or hoop frame structure, window box or unheated greenhouse. “Packing some straw around the vegetables adds a layer of insulation and moisture retention,” the team said.

Some winter vegetables that can grow well in the Taos area are kale, brussel sprouts, onions and shallots, garlic, spring onions, spinach, broad beans, peas, asparagus, winter cabbage, broccoli and winter lettuce.

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