How to Put Winter to Work for Your Garden

Gardening tips to make the most of the season

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You may be feeling short-staffed at work, but when it comes to your garden, you have a full and willing team out there that's ready to work for you all winter long. What's more, these workers—leaves, microbes, and cover crops—don't take coffee breaks or spend their working hours surfing the Internet. However, they focus on helping you grow your garden, not your business (unless, like me, gardening is your business).

Here's how and why to put these helpers to work: 

• Leaves. Autumn leaves provide a wide variety of benefits to a garden. Trees usually have long roots that draw up many trace minerals from the earth, and these trace minerals become concentrated in the trees' leaves. Putting leaves on your garden adds these necessary trace minerals to your soil as the leaves decay.

Leaves are also a source of carbon and are considered "browns" in a compost pile. (Ideally, your compost is about 70 percent "browns," such as leaves, twigs, and wood chips; the rest is comprised of "greens," such as grass clipping, plant remains, and fruit and veggie waste.) Most garden debris is considered a source of nitrogen, or "greens," so adding a critical carbon source like leaves is very important to keep the compost pile balanced— which also means not smelly—and productive.

Leaves also add organic matter to soil, which allows for the circulation of both air and water. And, when used as a mulch, leaves add warmth to overwintering crops such as carrots and garlic.

To use leaves in your garden or compost pile, crush them first so that they don't become matted, which can lead to mold. Fun ways to do this include putting them in a metal garbage can and hitting them with a weed whacker, or telling the kids to go jump in them over and over again. After all those hours at your desk or in meetings, you may even want to stretch your legs and jump in a few times yourself. Go ahead—have fun. That's part of gardening. 

• Microbes. Let's pop back to middle-school science class for a minute. I promise you we won't dissect any frogs or cow eyeballs! We'll just talk soil (and if you like dirty talk like this, there's an excellent book on the topic named Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, which inspired a documentary). 

Soil—and air and water, for that matter—is alive with organisms called microbes, which include bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes. These organisms are all microscopic, not to be confused with all the bugs and worms you can actually see in a healthy, toxin-free soil. Microbes help your soil because they feast on decaying organic matter and excrete nutrients that benefit your plants. One way to help them do their job during the winter is to cut off your finished crops in late fall at the soil line, leaving the roots for the microbes to feast on. They enjoy these "holiday meals" too, you know!

• Cover crops. Cover crops are seeds that you plant now so that they can get established before the cold weather intensifies. It may actually be a bit late to plant them in parts of the United States, but keep them in mind for next year. Ideal winter cover crops usually include a legume such as crimson clover, hairy vetch, or Austrian winter peas; you can use also use these in combination. Plus, you'll want to include a grain, such as winter rye.

The legumes will absorb nitrogen from the air that they store in nodules on their roots. When you cut down the legumes in early spring, the microbes (our old friends!) will eat the nodules and excrete a form of nitrogen that new plants can then use. Meanwhile, the roots of your grains scavenge for trace minerals to nourish their growth. When those plants are cut down, all those minerals go back into the soil, enriching it. It's similar to the cycle we see with the decayed leaves.

You see how it works? One big symbiosis. One big, well-run organization, like many workplaces, where all the different functions add up to a greater whole. Or at least that's the theory.

So, in short, crunch up lots of leaves, add them to your compost pile, and mulch around overwintering crops. Cut off any finished summer and fall crops at the soil line, and order some cover crop seeds online to plant (toss and rake lightly, then water) before the cold sets in. Then, when people ask you how your garden is going, you can answer honestly, "I'm working on it."

Tap in next week and I'll share some ways to add art to your garden.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Daron Joffe is a 30-something eco-entrepreneur who lives to make a difference in the world one homegrown organic fruit and vegetable at a time. Known as "Farmer D," Joffe has grown food for celebrities, private communities, and elementary schools in his "town-by-town mission to re-energize the food culture." His products are sold at select Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores. Born in South Africa and based in Atlanta, Farmer D is online at www.farmerD.com.