Veggie production slows to a feeble crawl as winter sets in, but below ground, microorganisms in the soil keep working year-round. To support this process, you can mulch over beds with leaves, grass clippings, straw, or another biodegradable material, or grow cold-hardy cover crops.
Letting your beds go through winter naked is a cruel option that exposes soil to the triple threat of compaction from rain and ice, erosion caused by wind and water, and nutrient loss from leaching. Mulches and cover crops cushion and protect the soil, and as they decompose they improve the soil's ability to retain nutrients by increasing its organic matter content.
Use leaves, stockpiled grass clippings, old hay, or whatever you have to tuck in your beds for winter.
At this late date, mulch is the most practical option for most of us. Use whatever you can get your hands on, and pile it on thick. You can keep mulching all through winter if you don't have snow, because there is no such thing as too much winter mulch. In spring, when you want your beds to dry out and warm up, simply rake the mulch into pathways, or pile it up and re-use it later on, when your plants are up and growing.
Hardy grains including oats, rye and wheat make great winter cover crops because their extensive roots do a good job of improving the soil's structure, and they will often germinate in cold soil. If you have a small garden, try sowing small patches using handfuls of whole grains purchased at the health food store. The seeds will sprout during mild breaks in the weather. In spring, you can chop the plants into the soil or pull them up and compost them.
Nitrogen-fixing legumes are an even better choice, particularly hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover. These crops need a bit of a head start in fall (planting dates range from September in the North to October in the South), but if you can get them established before winter, you'll have a dream situation in spring. Simply use a sharp hoe to sever each plant at the soil line. Let the foliage dry into a mat for a few days, and then make openings in the mulch to plant your veggies.
What are your beds wearing this winter? Use the comments section below to share your favorite winter soil-soothing techniques.
Winter wheat grown from bulk-bin wheat berries make a fine winter cover crop in a small garden.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.
Photos by Barbara Pleasant.