Protecting Your Soil Over Winter

I work hard to keep a good soil nutrient level. After all, if I consider the meaning of “living off the land” it quickly becomes obvious that the land is a key component to my health and well being. I don’t intend to sit and watch a good chunk of it wash away in the harsh Iowa winter/spring.  I have two main ways that I protect my growing soil.

Green manure – cover crops. I like hairy vetch, because it grows well in my area and puts on pretty purple flower. It’s great at fixing nitrogen into the soil, and makes a big amount of leafy/flowery goodness that can be hoed in increase the biomass in the soil.  It’s nice and soft, and while it will get a bit of vine tangle when a heavy sowing gets too big, they are easy to hoe. Really you just want something that will grow easily in your area, and cover the bare earth with leaves and roots to protect it  from the ravages of nature. Rye, and alfalfa and clovers are others I’ve heard good things about. clover

Mulches – I use a mix of grass clippings and leaves, mostly because that’s what I have available.  I have some herbs that I cover pretty deeply, up to 4 inches thick. I also bury my garlic crop in 4-5 inches of mulch.  My flower bulbs and perennials appreciate some protection against our bitterly NW Iowa cold wind.  I aim for 2-3 inches over them. Other places in the garden, where I’m just covering dirt, I try to get it covered with at least a couple of inches`of protection. Mulch will help retain moisture, cover weed seeds and keep the soil from swinging so wildly between temperatures during freeze/thaw cycles.

Both methods provide habitat for various beneficial insects and fungi.  Both get shifted around once I get ready to plant in the spring, most baby plants can’t push through 3 inches of mulch or a heavy sowing of cover crops. The cover crops always get hoed in and the mulches get thinned to an inch or so, with extra going to the compost pile or fallow sections of garden. This is another one of those spring tasks that I use my trusty hoe for. I find the gas powered till too extreme a measure for the simple act of taking down vetch or clover.

Reward your hard working soil with a nice bit of winter R&R. It’ll thank you in the spring.

– Calamity Jane

9 comments… add one
  • Roseman October 8, 2013, 8:34 am

    Slightly off topic; does anyone have experience/knowledge about adding yeast to compost bins?

  • javelin October 8, 2013, 7:42 pm

    Winter rye is best. good cover crop and wildlife will utilize it over the winter. Also not invasive and pervasive like the vetches.

  • Prepper Kid October 8, 2013, 10:19 pm

    This may seem like a rookie question but would you mulch strawberries over winter?

    • Michael October 9, 2013, 12:54 am

      You should if it gets very cold where you’re at.

      • Prepper Kid October 10, 2013, 1:23 pm

        Thanks Michael

  • Michael October 9, 2013, 1:02 am

    I was at the Seed Savers Farm (Decorah, IA) a few weeks ago and they were using a mix of rye and clover as cover crops for a bunch of gardens.

    They use mustard as a green manure crop in the potato field in Eastern WA. It seems the bugs that like to eat potato tubers don’t like the capsaicin in the mustard.

  • Pineslayer October 10, 2013, 12:38 am

    So CJ, do you collect the Vetch seed or buy more? My concern is that with heavy spring snows that the seed might get pushed down into the soil.

    • Calamity Jane October 10, 2013, 8:41 am

      Usually I just buy more, it comes in large enough quantities that I can share with neighbors and family who are curious. I don’t usually let the vetch go to seed, I hoe it under before that point. But even if you do get some that reseed and make it into the soil, it’s easy enough to spot when it comes up in the spring, if it’s coming up in a bad spot, just nip them out when they are little baby vetch.

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