How are our fields looking these days? Not such a crazy question to be asking in the middle of winter. I’m walking the fields, ordering cover crop seeds, and putting their sow dates on the calendar. Better to think about it now rather than assume I’ll “get to it” once things start rolling in the spring. If I have the seed in stock, I’m much more likely to sow it close to the scheduled date than if I have to drive to the feed store and pick it up, (provided it’s in stock) and get it in the ground when the weather’s right.

Some winters we have a lovely, consistent snow cover, protecting our tender (zone 5) perennials from deep freezes (sea holly, lavender, Shasta daisy). Our zone 4 perennials I’m not worried about; they overwinter even when the temperature remains well below zero. I also love a snowy winter to protect the soil from wind erosion on any beds that we didn’t get a hardy cover crop on.

In a dry winter, our fields remind me of the tundra; dry, rock hard, and crisp. Walk on the cover crop of winter rye/vetch and it crackles and snaps underfoot. I cringe at the sight of any bare soil, thinking “Next year, I’ve got to get a cover crop into these beds of late-fall annuals!” But how to establish a cover crop on beds still in production, in time to have it put on enough growth, but not so early that it interferes with the flower crop?

The first frost in September is usually light enough to affect only the most tender annuals: zinnia, basil, amaranth, celosia, gomphrena. As soon as these are touched by frost, they’re compromised to where they won’t hold up once cut, even though they might still look colorful at first glance. Time to mow, disc, and drill in a winter rye and vetch/clover mix.

The rye is amazing. As long as it has a week-long window of decent weather—fifty degrees and one good soaking rainfall—it will germinate, and sprout a tiny red tip. That’s all it needs to overwinter and come on strong in early spring. The gamble lies in my tendency to wait until the tougher annuals are frost-affected, by which time the weather might not provide that crucial week-long window. These winter covers establish sufficiently if sown by late September. I love seeing those green fields all winter long, knowing that the root zones below are hibernating nutrient-retaining microbes that will come alive in mid-March.

One thing that resulted in a less than ideal winter cover is that I didn’t prep the soil prior to drilling in the seed. I thought the grain drill would furrow deep enough to set the seeds without a surface till. But after drilling, I saw a number of seeds sitting on top of the soil, high and dry. Bird food. Fearing I might have wasted time and money, I dug around a week later and saw that many seeds had definitely sprouted….whew!

So what else to do about my dread of seeing bare soil all winter long? Buy seed now, so it’s on hand to intersow into the frost-hardy annuals that carry us through October. I’m picturing us harvesting snapdragon, lisianthus, trachelium, craspedia and Ammi daucus, with a light understory of spouts on any bare areas. I haven’t tried it yet, but since I can’t quite bring myself to turn under these late fall workhorses while they’re still producing, I’ll give it a go next year and let you know how it turns out.

Diana Doll

StrayCat Flower Farm

Diana Doll StrayCat Flower Farm Contact her at [email protected]