November is an uneasy weather month, especially after the glorious early fall warmth and sunshine we've experienced this year. With the arrival of late fall, precipitation and temperatures may vary, but as the days move along one thing is clear: winter is nearly here. The shortening days shrink to insubstantial things, and the air is cuttingly cold at times. Still, few hard freezes have arrived, which makes November the perfect time to put your garden to bed.
The usual way we put our gardens to bed is to clean old plant matter that has been killed by frost and to mulch open soil to protect it from winter's cold. Cleaning your garden in the fall makes a lot of sense: in the spring, the timely gardener is spending the earliest days of spring sowing peas and spinach--not cleaning up the tangled messes of tomato vines and climbing beans left behind after fall's firsts frosts. If your November is too busy to clean--worry not. Clean when you can in the spring--or even during a January thaw. But if you have the time to spare, clean now; you'll be thanking yourself in March.
Mulch is a like a big thick comforter for your garden--and is highly recommended for bringing plants through the winter that come sometime succumb to the cold. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and lavender benefit from a mulching (a light, dry one, if possible), as they can be felled by January freezes. Mulching also extends the harvest season for cold-hardy roots such as carrots, turnips, radishes, and potatoes, allowing you to harvest these crops without a root cellar well into December or January (though you shouldn't plan on them making it into deep winter with only mulch as a cover--unless your mulch is extremely thick).
November is not just a great time to put your garden to bed--it's the perfect time to put beds into your garden! All the annual weeds are gone now, as are most of your own annual flowers and vegetables, meaning that the soil is empty of active, tenacious growth and that what does remain is in a more timid, dormant state. Beds that are cleared and prepared now will be just as clean and ready-to-go in the spring, as very little will germinate in the winter months. In addition, soil amendments that are added now--whether it be compost or nitrogen-rich soybean meal or lime--will react very little with the decomposing agents in the soil, which means that their fertile contributions will be preserved until the spring planting season is upon us.
Of course, it's best to prepare beds now for the crops that are planted earliest in spring--peas, spinach, arugula, radishes, and the like--as the beds will be ready to go just as soon as the frost is out of the soil. Beds for tomatoes and other heat-loving crops can be prepared now, certainly, but will require preventative tending throughout April and May to keep germinating weeds from reclaiming the garden bed. A thick layer of mulch applied now will help in this effort--but do consider pulling the mulch aside early in spring to help thaw out your pea and spinach soil.