Answer: While winter may be the least attractive season for your vegetable plots, there are still a lot of important things that occur during the winter months. Fall is the time to put your farm’s plots to sleep so that they may be ready to spring into motion when winter begins to thaw.
There are a number of options and, as always, they will differ depending on your own needs and the specific climate that you function within.
Winter is a time when your soil can get some necessary TLC. All vegetable plots can benefit from regular regiments of cover cropping, compost, and mulch.
There are a number of things that happen when a bed is nicely cover-cropped before the winter months:
• the soil is protected from the elements, such as wind and rain erosion and extreme temperatures
• soil texture is maintained—roots aerate the soil; microorganisms find a suitable climate to live, eat, excrete, and die in; and water retention is elevated
• nutrients are replenished and protected from leaching caused by winter rains (legumes in particular replenish nitrogen in the soil)
• weeds are suppressed
Furthermore, when you are ready to plant in the spring, the cover crops can either be incorporated as green chop in compost or used as mulch.
In Situ Compost
In situ (in place/in bed) compost is simply building a compost pile directly on top of your vegetable plots in the fall, hoeing it under the spring, and planting directly on top of that. In situ compost follows the same theories as thermophillic compost in that it is a balance between carbon and nitrogen that is most conducive to the micro- and macro-organisms present in the pile. Bury green chop and other nitrogenous materials (such as chicken manure) under a generous layer of straw and let it sit over the winter. Covering the bed with plastic may help speed the process.
Another interesting option, especially if you are putting in new beds or a new border, is to sheet mulch. Essentially, sheet mulching is a cold composting process that builds new beds and suppresses weeds. To create a sheet mulch bed, lay cardboard over the area you wish to grow on, wet it thoroughly, and then begin to layer materials. You can be creative, but the general idea is to build compost on top of the bed. Alternate layers of green material (nitrogenous) with brown (carbonaceous) like you are making lasagna. Cap it with a layer of mulch and let it sit over the winter.
Trench composting is similar to in situ and sheet mulching. To trench compost, dig a trench and fill it with compostables, before capping the trench with soil and straw. In the spring, either dig in the soil and plant directly into the new compost, or dig it out and place it on a bed next to the trench, thus utilizing the trench as a pathway.
Mulching invites some similar beneficial aspects of cover cropping—specifically, protecting the soil from the elements. Layering finished compost over a vegetable plot and then capping that with straw or decayed leaves will help maintain the tillage and nutrient integrity of your plot.
Depending on where you live, there are certain crops that can grow outside year round without cover. Quickly maturing plants like radish, lettuces, and spinach can be planted, grown, and harvested before killing frosts. Also certain Brassicas like broccoli, kale, and especially brussels sprouts prefer cooler weather. Certain root crops, such as garlic, parsnips, turnips, carrots, and onions, are planted in to the fall for spring harvest, and many of the same root crops are planted in the spring for late fall and winter harvest.
Winter time is an important period to allow the soil to rest, rejuvenate, and prepare for spring.
For more information on cover crops, see the ATTRA publication Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=288. This publication summarizes the principal uses and benefits of cover crops and green manures. Brief descriptions and examples are provided for winter cover crops, summer green manures, living mulches, catch crops, and some forage crops. It also addresses management issues including vegetation management, limitations of cover crops, use in crop rotations, use in pest management, and economics of cover crops.
For more information on compost, see the ATTRA publication Compost: The Basics at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=374. This publication gives a basic overview of the benefits of building your own compost, and general instructions for doing so.
For more information on cold hardy crops, see the ATTRA publication Specialty Crops for Cold Climates at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=369. This publication discusses ways that specialty crop farmers can continue to market products into the colder months by cultivating certain hardy crops and implementing season extension techniques.
For more specific information on sheet mulch, in situ compost, and trench composting, consult the following resources.
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