What the Best-Dressed Beds Are Wearing This Winter

| 11/14/2008 7:23:28 AM

Tags: soil, mulch, cover crops, winter gardening,

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. 

Consider Your Options

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. 

WheatBPHardy 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.

2/15/2011 3:32:20 PM

On person mentioned using the ash from his coal burning stove. It is very high in mercury and should be considered a toxic waste and not returned to the garden.

1/12/2009 1:13:50 PM

I am using my woodburning stove for the first time this winter and I am wondering if anyone knows about using the ash from the stove in my compost? I am concerned about altering the pH of the compost too dramatically. For now I have sprinkled the ash in a segregated pile and have stirred it in and I am using some of it in my inground canine solid waste disposal system. Any thoughts or opinions? Thanks

barbara martin_1
1/6/2009 7:07:56 AM

Does anyone have an environmentally friendly solution to grubs. I don't want to use chemicals if I can find another solution. Now they are hiding in the ground, but I know come spring they will be at my plants again. I do not use chemicals in my yard, much to the chagrin of my neighbors, but it does seem like the grubs are multiplying faster and faster every year. I think I am loosing this war.

bonnie white
12/16/2008 2:10:40 PM

Jeff, I really enjoyed your info on lasagna gardening. The compost specialists in the central and southern willamette valley, Oregon are encouraging the public to collect those coffee grounds and use them. We have a compost trial going with leaves and coffee grounds with a 2 to 1 ratio. The coffee grounds are giving the piles nitrogen and really increasing the heat in the pile. Here in Oregon we have had 20 degree weather that feels much colder but still had 100 degree temps in my coffee / leaf piles which if started the first of December. Another idea is get burlap bags from coffee roasters and fill with leaves and use to store leaves for spring composting and also to add warmth around your worm bins and etc. I even have one on the patio for my dog to lay on. I am going to combine Jeff's idea of coffee grounds and add leaves in a burlap bag and put on the top of my sheet composting beds. Enjoy and keep warm, Bonnie White

12/11/2008 5:21:57 AM

I'm an organic vermiculture experimentalist in PA. ( worm farm) I started doing "lasagna gardens" last year ( see http://flipshouses.blogspot.com ) remind me to start a new blog with garden only stuff... resusts were tremendous yields for veggies and flowers! End of year I layered with leaves, coffee grounds (I collect about 50#/day from a quickmart along my commute), raw pumpkin (my AGWAY let me take his 2,000# of leftovers day after halloween!) and wet cardboard. Cardboard is high carbon, high fiber, retains moisture and excellent food for worms. The worm castings are marvelous for all plants, and worms will be working all winter in my beds speeding the composting process. Watch soon for article on "blackbox composting". My home is heated by a small coal burner and I put 10 gallons of cinders in heavy duty black plastic bags and plase as solar collection pillows on the raised beds. Will discover in spring if the freeze lifts earlier and anything was accomplished. Some of the bags contain coffee grounds for the same purpose. The grounds will compost in the bags while they hold heat. Downside: anerobic composting stinks to high heaven if youpuncture the bag, but fine once completed. Enjoy they day, and your garden! Jeff Kurtz organic garden/vermipost consultant jlkurtz@reykurassociatesinc.com

bonnie white
12/8/2008 2:06:48 AM

What are my beds wearing this winter? I have given all my garden beds nice layer of compost and shredded leaves. I have been adding coffee chaffe (a bi-product of roasting coffee). It seems to hold a lot of moisture like coco peat or peat moss. It is a great mulch around plants, carbon material for composting and great as a part of a planting mix. For brand new garden beds and those waiting till spring to be planted in I use the sheet composting method. I layer carbon and nitrogen material in thin layers and top with leaves and burlap coffee sacks. Most of the garden paths are filled with leaves so as I walk on them they produce leaf mold. I also use straw bale gardening which can be done anytime of year. Simply place the bale where you want it so the straw pulls out easily. Soak for about a week until it stops heating up. Rough up the surface and pull some of the straw out and fill with compost and plant. In reference to the pine mulch I would save it for acid loving plants like Blueberries and Roddys. Enjoy. Bonnie

12/7/2008 4:20:55 PM

I have a new garden. We live on a mountain with very little flat space. This fall I built raised beds using 2 high blocks on three sides to form two 16' x 4' beds for vegetables next spring. Using a combination of compost from our perenial pile, powdered limestone, old leaves, several inches of goat manure (from a local farm) and 10 bags of purchased top soil from a home center I filled these beds. We recently had to cut down a huge pine tree which over hung our house. The tree company mulched most of the branches. I have been using this mulch to dress flower and herb beds around the house. Should I put some of this pine mulch on top of my vegetable bed this winter and turn it under in the spring. Or would it be better to let the layers I have already put in rot as is until next spring? I'm afraid of adding too much acid to our soil which is already very acidic. Janet

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