Inch by Inch: Winter growth

Posted Wednesday, September 26, 2012 in Features

Inch by Inch: Winter growth

Once you've harvested everything, you don't want the winter winds and snows to undo all your hard work amending the soil this past spring.  So it's time to plant.

Yes, plant.

The plants will only grow for a little while before the frost kills them, but their roots will remain in the soil and hold the soil down, keeping it from blowing away, and in some cases, fixing nitrogen for the benefit of your plants next spring.

There are several choices for winter forage (if you do have foraging animals, they can eat the tender green plants until the frost takes them). 

1.  Field peas.  Field peas are nitrogen fixers with the benefit of providing tall enough forage to feed your goats and sheep. Plus, they're pretty!

2.  Forage radish.  Use sparingly, but forage radish releases nutrients back into the soil when you turn over your beds in the spring, and aerates the soil in the meantime. Chickens are fond of radish sprouts, and while the thin radishes themselves are edible, their better use is to be left in the ground to keep the soil from becoming compacted.

3.  Winter rye.  As a grass, it can be harvested and eaten by even large animals if the frost holds off. Even if it does not, the roots hold the soil pretty well.

4.  Winter oats.  Again, a decent forage for large and small animals alike, and a grain that, if it doesn't frost early, can be used in winter oatmeal cookies come Christmas!

5.  Alfalfa.  Great for forage and sprouts, alfalfa makes a decent soil amendment in the spring when turned over.  The alfalfa will green up in the spring, especially if wintering under a bed of snow, before you're ready to put your plants in.

Choose a ground cover that is good for your growing area.  Most of these can be used throughout Maine, but some frost has already occurred in northern regions, so check with your seed company.

Once your vines and dead plants are out of the ground, it's time to compost them.  For garden waste and leaves, an open-air composter will work well, such as the one built from recycled pallets and chicken wire -- very simple to construct! -- and that will save you room in your covered composter for nastier waste, such as chicken bedding and so on. 

Either way, the compost you'll start now will be gold for next year's beds.  Be sure you aren't adding weed seeds to your compost (paper bag those and set them out for the town to compost in larger batches) or diseased plant material (discard of those by fire, if possible). 

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