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.
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