Prepping Your Winter Cover for Springtime Success

Oct 4, 2018

Lucas Dinwiddie spreading leaf mulch.
Credit Sky Freyss-Cole

My husband’s grandmother kept a big garden for years—roughly 15 by 30 feet, and always filled with beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peas. She passed away a few years ago and the land is still in the family, but over the past few seasons it’s been neglected, and now it’s overgrown.

The other day I stopped by to talk with my friend Lucas Dinwiddie of Halcyon Farm in Brewster to get advice on reclaiming it. He pointed me to a large area he didn’t farm this year, covered in weeds that he’d just mowed down.

It’s a 20 by 80-foot area that he plans to cover with leaf mulch. The idea is to leave it there so that everything underneath it will die.

Dinwiddie's soil prepared for planting.
Credit Sky Freyss-Cole

“When plants don’t get sunlight basically they can’t grow, so everything underneath will basically break down - the worms, especially with that nice thick layer of leaf mulch all the worms come, bacteria flourish and all that stubble, which isn’t that much stubble, will break down,” Lucas said.

Lucas uses a no-till approach on his one-acre farm. It’s a technique that’s exactly what it sounds like, unlike many farmers and even home gardeners, he doesn’t till his soil. Instead, he uses mulches to reduce erosion, increase organic matter and water retention, and improve nutrient cycling. The leaf mulch he uses is basically just shredded leaves, dropped off by landscapers who’d rather bring it to him than to the dump.

Lucas recommends a thickness of four inches of mulch, but, a lot can blow off in the winter, and if you put it down before a big rain it can get compact.

“But I’ve covered new areas of sod with leaf mulch, and never tilled it, and planted right through it. So like I had to wait about a year, but then I just basically broad-forked, kind of raised the soil where I was going to plant, and you really don’t need to till if you’re going that direction.”

He uses seaweed with his mulch too. He’ll head down to the coast and harvest eel grass and spread it.

“If I’m going to cover a large area with thick leaf mulch I’ll spread a couple wheelbarrows of seaweed underneath it,” Lucas said.

There isn’t much literature on the benefits of seaweed, but old timers say it brings nutrients and trace minerals from the sea, and any organic matter breaks down to add structure that’s good for soil. Lucas also uses silage tarps—basically large black plastic tarps—to block the sun and break down weeds. And he says whether you’ve got an established growing area or are starting a new one, this is the time of year to be getting ready.

He typically starts by getting a soil test to make sure pH is in order.

“So like, if you’re really deficient in something, you know you have a good 3-4 months to get it in and have it start activating and kind of correcting.”

Knowing what the levels are in your soil can help you solve simple problems—like if you don’t have enough calcium, your tomatoes can get blossom end rot, or if you’re missing boron, your turnips will be black and hollow in the center. If you test before you spread any kind of cover you can add amendments first—like if your pH was low and your soil was too acidic, you could spread lime, or if you were lacking nutrients overall you might spread compost or compost tea or consider a winter cover crop, something cold hardy, like a legume or winter rye.

“Rye’s good, but it’s not going to be actually adding nutrients into your soil. Peas, clover, so peas are great because they’ll climb on the rye if it’s tall but they’ll usually over-seed with a legume to fix nitrogen,” Lucas said. He added, “Oats is a similar cover crop to winter rye, but it’s supposed to winter kill, so not supposed to be hardy enough to make it through the winter, so it’s a little bit easier to deal with in the spring.”  

That’s what this whole approach is about—putting in some work now so that when spring comes the garden is ready to be planted. This spring I cleared just enough space in our family’s lost garden to plant a few rows of beans for drying—Black Turtle, Marfax, and Cannellini. They were surrounded by weeds but they did well enough—we got about three quarts of dried beans from six short rows, and they added some nitrogen for next season. I thought we’d need a rototiller to break ground next spring. But after talking with Lucas I’m going to start with a soil test—and after that, maybe some amendments, seaweed, and a thick layer of leaf mulch. 

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If you’re interested in learning more about no-till and low-input farming, Elspeth recommends this book by Maine farmer and author Will Bonsall on what he calls “radical, self-reliant gardening.” It’s a wealth of information on all things soil and food and delves deep into some of the practices she and Lucas Dinwiddie were talking about today.