When the colder months start to draw in, the number of garden jobs we can do inevitably decreases, but here is one crucial job you can do right now - improving your raised beds.
Putting in the effort now, when there is little else to do, will be richly rewarded next year - so let's get right to it.
Nobody likes to weed; that's why I've put it first so we can get it over with! While it is a task that is easy to put off, proper weeding is essential if you want your garden to look and perform at its best.
Weeding in the autumn and overwinter gives you a great head start going into next year. The only weeds that will still be around at this time will be your larger perennial weeds.
Remove these weeds now, and then next year, your burden will be much reduced. If you let these tough weeds survive through the winter, they will have time to establish themselves, making them much harder to remove in the long run.
So, even if it is hard to make yourself do it, I recommend you get out there and pull those weeds!
If your beds are really overgrown, like mine is in the photo below, then using a string trimmer first can be a smart idea.
This is the same bed before and after going through it with the string trimmer.
Now that you have removed a lot of the green growth, you can get to the roots of the plants much easier and see what you are dealing with.
I will then go through and rake up all of the loose weeds so I can really see what is left.
After that, it is time to remove the larger - perennial weeds. These will have larger roots and, in general, will be tougher to remove. These are the ones we really want to get rid of now while they are dormant.
I like to use a hoe for this, but whatever you like to use for general weed removal will work well.
Mulching is another great idea for improving your beds over winter. The mulch can help to improve your soil in numerous different ways.
It will smother weeds and stop them from growing. For smaller, shallow-rooted annual weeds, a good mulch layer may be enough to kill them off entirely.
Mulching will also improve the soil over time if you use a natural mulch. This is because as it breaks down, it will provide nutrients to the soil. There are many different mulches you could use, so let me go through some of the common ones below.
Compost is the perfect mulch and is what I will commonly use on my beds. It provides all of the benefits of mulch - weed suppression, preventing soil erosion, and tidying up the garden.
It does all of this while providing a lot of nutrition to your soil and improving it over time. Winter is the perfect time to apply compost mulch, and it will feed your soil and reinvigorate it - ready for spring.
To apply a compost mulch, simply add an inch or two of compost to your beds as evenly as possible.
You can also mulch your beds with wood chips, but there are a few things to look out for. To start with, you want the woodchip to be well broken down, roughly 1-2 years old.
As wood breaks down, it actually uses up nitrogen in the soil before rereleasing it once it is further decomposed.
So if you have lots of fresh woodchip in your garden beds, then it will be using up nitrogen and actually making the soil worse. Once it is broken down, however, it swaps to improve your soil, so timing is essential here.
To see whether the woodchip is broken down enough, you want to look for it to be dark-colored and without large pieces of wood. From a distance, it will look like compost rather than woodchip!
Above, you can see my pile of older woodchips, and if you just glanced at it, you wouldn't be able to tell whether it was woodchip or compost. This is perfect for use as a mulch.
Apply your woodchip to the top of your beds, I normally find a 1” layer is enough.
Green manure works almost like a living mulch. These are crops that you sow in autumn and grow in your beds over winter.
Once they are finished, normally in spring, then you employ a method called “chop & drop”. This is where you chop the plants back to the roots but leave the green growth on your beds to die back and become incorporated into the soil.
This will feed your bed as you are essentially applying compost to the beds.
Having plants growing in the soil over winter will also stop any weeds from growing and prevent soil erosion, much like a regular mulch does.
Some green manures are also what is known as nitrogen fixers. These plants - often from the legume family, are known to store a lot of nitrogen. This means that once you chop these back, all that nitrogen will be added to your soil.
If you have a bad weed problem, then one effective measure can be to cover your beds from autumn through to spring. This will help to reduce the number of weeds in your beds.
You can also leave this for longer to kill off any more determined weeds. I like to use this black landscaping fabric, which you can see in the image below.
One standard method is to cut a few small holes in the fabric and plant squash into the holes in the spring.
This way, you will be killing off the weeds while also keeping the bed productive.
So there we have it: many different ways to improve your raised beds over winter, so get out there right now and give a few of them a go!