Winter is the time for most farmers to catch a quick breather, relax their weary bodies and start making grand plans for the next season. This downtime is necessary to rest and recover from all of the challenges of the growing season, which always comes with exciting triumphs as well as disappointing failures. It’s the nature of the business.
Alas, while the farmers rest there are ways they can keep their fields working through the winter. As the body recovers and the mind is left to wander, the excitement for the ensuing season inevitably builds and cabin fever drives farmers into their fields regardless of the elements.
With some proactive planning and preparation farmers can keep their fields bustling and busy even throughout the coldest months. Unlike humans, microbes in the soil are always fiending for more fuel and activity, preferring not to take any rest. By feeding these tiny organisms and keeping them covered and warm they will remain multiplying to the benefit of the soil and final crop quality.
Adding compost to rejuvenate fields and garden beds is the obvious go to choice for any grower. Collected compost piles break down throughout the year into fine organic matter called humus. The addition of humus to planting sites has numerous benefits.
It adds to the porosity of the soil, retaining moisture, but also preventing water from collecting and drowning out roots. Humus introduces many beneficial microbes and enzymes to the already existing biota of the soil. This advantage leads to an extremely important point, the elevation of the cation exchange rate. The heightened electrical energy from the microscopic life forms unlocks essential elements in the soil, making them more available and easily absorbed by the roots. The nutrient exchange from the soil to the plant leads to more robust life above and below the surface of the earth.
Late fall and early winter is the perfect time to add compost to next year’s planting site. The overwintering of the organic material gives microbes present in the soil time to further break down and incorporate the newly added compost, increasing biodiversity and improving overall health.
Cover crops are a classic way to replenish soil with needed nutrients that may have been depleted from heavy feeding plants, like cannabis, over the course of a season. For thousands of years farmers have been incorporating cover crops into the practice of crop rotation. This method is extremely effective at replenishing soils devoid of nutrients and prevents the spread of disease that may build up when one type of crop is continually grown in the same place. Biodiversity is the best friend of a farmer that wants to see their crops thrive.
Cover crops are typically sown in the fall after harvesting the main crop and left through the winter to improve soil quality. In the spirit of crop rotation, they may also be planted at the start of a season and left the entire year to let the soil rest, improve its quality and recover from a heavy feeding crop that had been grown in that spot.
Cover crops are often used to prevent soil loss and erosion. Roots hold topsoil in place while water retention is also improved with the planting of cover crops. They hold and keep these valuable resources from washing away.
Weed suppression is another aspect of cover crops that is greatly appreciated by busy growers. Planted in the offseason (or growing season, in between and around plants) they will outcompete and smother most weeds that vie for space, sunlight, water and nutrients.
An especially useful group of cover crops are called “dynamic accumulators.” These special plants convert nutrients, or take them from inaccessible places and put them back into the soil in a usable form for the next round of crops to take advantage of.
Legumes, like field peas or vetch, absorb nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil, ensuring that the next planting will benefit, growing vigorously and developing strong stalks, leaves and stems.
Borage and comfrey have long taproots that reach deep down into the soil and pull up essential minerals like calcium and potassium, retaining them in the surface level soil for ease of absorption by feeder roots.
Other commonly used cover crops include: Oats, peas, clovers, grains like millet and sorghum, mustard and alfalfa.
Green manure is a combination of the principles of compost and cover crops. It is cultivated in a garden bed or planting field, much like a cover crop and chopped down at the end of the fall, dropped in place to decompose, adding nutrients to the soil. Or, the green manure is left standing throughout the winter and cut down in the spring, getting turned into the soil and eventually breaking down before planting.
When planning to establish new cultivation sites, an initial planting of green manure can help break up compact soil, invite beneficial insects and introduce needed nutrients to the area. It’s an extremely convenient practice that is sustainable and doesn’t require much extra time or effort. The roots of the green manure help hold the soil in place, protecting against erosion and slowly breaking down over the course of the winter, keeping microbes happy and well fed.
Most common cover crops can be utilized as a green manure to greatly benefit the health of the soil. Buckwheat, ryegrass, vetch, varieties of clover, peas, winter wheat, barley, alfalfa and mustard will all add large amounts of biomass to be worked into the soil.
The no till method is a controversial subject in the field of sustainable growing. There are factions that swear by the practice; never tilling the soil, so as not to disturb the delicate vitality of its ecology. By continuously adding compost, mulch and other organic matter the integrity of the soil is upheld and no important life form is destroyed or damaged. The fine balance of organisms, above and below the ground, sustains the critical life force of the soil.
Tilling and turning this intricate ecosystem leads to the destruction of valuable microbes and beneficial bugs. It takes a long time to reestablish their soil enriching harmony. Minerals and nutrients get exposed to the air, becoming oxidized and relegating them inert. There are many good points to be made for disturbing the soil as little as possible.
Pro-till farmers argue that in order for roots to reach for water and fertilizer, the soil must be turned, loosened and fluffed up. It is true that a freshly tilled garden looks nice and goes a long way toward breaking up compacted soil. But once soil has been broken up initially, the addition of compost and production of cover crops/green manure seems plenty enough to get the job done. With these practices the soil will remain loose, porous, living and healthy.
In the cozy, lazy days of winter, rather than resting, our fields are quietly bursting with life. As stewards of the planet, we allow nature to do what she does best: Renew, regenerate, recycle and recharge, feeding the earth and developing into uber rich soil. During the dreary winter months there are unheralded, microscopic workhorses picking up the slack, leading the way to a prosperous season, all while the rest of the world peacefully slumbers.