SALT LAKE CITY — The outdoor homegrown tomatoes may be long gone, but there are plenty of things Utah gardeners can do right now to ensure a bountiful harvest next season. This list is just an example of the many activities that can and should be part of preparing your garden for spring.
Whatever gardening chores you choose, involve children whenever possible to help them learn the blessings of work and the joy that comes from improving the outdoors.
In dry Utah, gardeners generally consider irrigation a warm-weather chore. While most plants go dormant once the ground freezes, during late fall in dry years, drought can stress plants. Lawns and established trees and shrubs don’t need winter water, but young trees and shrubs (especially evergreens) can benefit from supplemental water if the ground is dry and not frozen.
“Brown evergreen needles, needle tips and branch tips are a common sight during the winter and early spring months. ... These are all examples of winter injury usually caused by the drying winds, lack of snow cover, fluctuating temperatures, and low soil moisture,” Planttalk Colorado says.
There is no need to wait for spring to clear those dried-out tomato, squash, cucumber and pumpkin plants. Remove dead plants and cover those areas with a layer of compost that can be dug into the soil in early spring. Remove wire cages and other plant supports and make repairs as needed so they are ready for use in the spring.
Many people add mulch in spring and summer. But mulch can be added to flower beds and gardens during any season. A layer of mulch can help ensure the survival of some sensitive plants during periods of severe cold.
Some root plants like carrots can be dug and used all winter if they are covered with a thick layer of mulch. The Utah State University Cooperative Extension Service recommends covering them with landscaping fabric before adding 12 inches of straw or similar material.
Most Utah dirt lacks enough organic material. Adding compost regularly is a good way to improve the soil. Creating compost can occur any time the ground is not frozen solid. Late fall is an especially good time to mix animal waste with chopped-up leaves, grass clippings and a little soil.
According to the USU Extension Service, this is also a good time to “work organic matter into the garden to decompose throughout the winter. Apply nitrogen fertilizer to help break it down before tilling.”
Raised garden beds, grow boxes, trellises, tomato cages, pathways and fences are all examples of garden projects one can build in the depths of winter. By doing those things now, gardeners can preserve valuable time that can be applied toward more time-sensitive demands in the spring.
There are many vegetables that can be grown indoors even during the winter months. According to the USU Extension Service, most vegetables do very well in containers, but it is important to pay attention to light, temperature, soil media, rooting space, plant selection, watering, feeding and pests.
Growing fruiting vegetables like tomatoes or peppers in a home presents challenges, while leafy vegetables like lettuce or spinach are fairly easy to grow.
Outside, winter can be a good time to plant or transplant trees and shrubs. Because they are dormant, there is less shock by moving or planting during the winter. Trees and shrubs put into the ground now will have a head start on root growth when the ground starts to warm in early spring. Just make sure to water when the soil gets dry and add a layer of mulch.
So even though it might be cold outside there is no need for gardeners to sit inside waiting for new seed catalogs to arrive. Chores done now means less work in the spring and helps ensure the next gardening season is a success.
Flint Stephens has a master's degree in communications from Brigham young University. He is author of "Mormon Parenting Secrets: Time-Tested Methods for Raising Exceptional Children." His blog is www.mormonparentingsecrets.com.