Fall approaches, so it’s time to make a plan to cover your growing area throughout the winter. In addition to protecting your soil from erosion, covering it with some kind of insulating material helps keep it from freezing and thawing as frequently. This relative stability of your soil temperature benefits its microbiology as well as the roots of any perennials you overwinter.
Here are some strategies to protect your beds this winter.
Plant Cover Crops
Sowing your growing areas to cover crops can be a great way to shelter them throughout the winter months. In addition to protecting your soil from erosion and providing it with substantial insulation, cover crops add organic matter to your soil as they break down.
Many growers plant cover crops in the late summer or early fall that are killed by cold winter temperatures. After covering the beds throughout the winter, the residue from the winter-killed crops can be left on the beds as mulch for spring plantings, raked into the walkways, or tilled into the soil. Different cover crops provide a variety of benefits to the soil (and also have different requirements of it), so research what kind of cover crops would be best suited for your farm.
Although cover crops can provide your farm with many benefits, they do come with drawbacks. Planting an area into a cover crop means passing up the opportunity to plant a cash crop there for a period of time. This has real financial consequences. Additionally, cover crop seed can be quite expensive.
Apply an Organic Mulch
Organic mulches such as straw, leaves or pine needles can be another great way to cover your beds throughout the winter. Whereas a cover crop might fail to grow in thick enough to provide the coverage you want throughout the winter, you can always apply mulches as thickly (or as thinly) as you like.
There are downsides to using organic mulches as well, however. First, applying mulch by hand is an unavoidably labor-intensive process. Second, mulches such as straw can be expensive. Many growers, however, find free leaves or pine needles from landscaping companies who are willing to get rid of them.
Leave On the Landscape Fabric
Another strategy for protecting your beds over the course of the winter is simply to leave on landscape fabric for the duration of the season. For those growers who’ve not used it before, landscape fabric is a woven textile material you can lay down over beds to act as a weed suppressant.
Although landscape fabric protects against erosion and has some insulating benefit to the soil, it has several substantial drawbacks. First, landscape fabric has a finite lifespan. Leaving it out for entire winters dramatically diminishes its longevity. Additionally, because landscape fabric is an inorganic material, it adds no organic matter to your soil.
Use a Tarp
Although using a tarp to cover your soil does not provide many benefits of other covering methods, it can be a great “last ditch” option if you find yourself in a pinch at the end of the season. Tarps can be especially valuable when a cover crop hasn’t produced a thick enough stand or when the quantity of mulch you ordered wasn’t quite enough to cover the last few beds.
Unlike some other methods of covering your soil, a tarp provides no real insulating benefit and also (obviously) adds no organic matter to the soil. It will, however, provide your soil with some protection from erosion and this is certainly better than leaving your soil fallow.