Arctic Vortex Gardening

Winter Soil ProtectionProtecting garden soil and starting seed outdoors in the dead of winter.

The harsh weather much of the country is experiencing means something to our gardens. Ground will freeze where it seldom freezes. Snow will visit places it seldom sees. Those familiar with snow and cold are seeing more of it.

What does this mean for our gardens? Bare soil frozen at extremely cold temperatures is subject to frost heave. Microorganisms, worms, and other living components of our earth are lost as they retreat as deeply as they can.

Mulching before the the cold weather sets in will moderate ground temperatures and protect soil. A good snow cover also helps. When the forecast is set for extreme cold, it might be a good idea to add more mulch – you’re mulching your garden, right? Those places already with snow cover, forget it. I was going to recommend that you go out and shovel fall leaves, if you can find them, and snow on top of what’s already blanketing your garden. But I’d forgotten how cold your toes and your cheeks get when you’re outside and it’s 15 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees above zero or colder. And I forgot how fast the wind will scatter any leaves you turn over. No doubt you mulched well ahead of winter weather. That will have to do.

Snow, which carries nitrogen to the soil, is actually good for the garden. It insulates, protecting soil from sudden temperature swings. It releases its moisture into the ground slowly. A snow cover just might be the difference between your garlic bulbs and asparagus patch surviving the winter with or without damage. Another reason we like snow cover? It’s beautiful.

The recent visit from the Arctic Vortex makes this hardly the week to proclaim it’s time to start the garden. But you can. Root vegetables – carrots, turnips, rutabagas and the like – as well as spinach, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts can be seeded on bare ground, if you have any, and covered with potting soil if the ground is frozen hard. Plants that emerge early in the spring harden off naturally — unless there’s a late cold snap — and are overall more hardy in my observation than plants purchased from nurseries later on in the spring. You might say they’re the products of tough love. There’s also less chance of fall and winter plantings coming down with disease. They’ll be well established come warm weather when diseases and such flourish.

Of course, many places are currently buried in snow including a lot of places that usually aren’t. Here in Bozeman, we have snow cover all winter long, interrupted by a thaw or two before it comes again. It can start as early as Halloween (or before!) and extend well into . . . well, I don’t want to think about how long it can go on. But I’ve always had success seeding lettuce, carrots, chard, and spinach in the fall and mulching heavily with clean straw, leaves and other lawn gleanings. The main thing is not to let the mulch get packed down. We’ve pulled up the mulch (gently! gently!) during February thaws and found seedlings — those little chard leaves, blanched white — patiently waiting for warming weather.

Protection is what we go for in the winter, for both our garden soil and any plants that may have taken it on themselves to get growing even if it is winter. Mulch — a hardy layer of insulation — provides that protection. You put a lot of time and effort into your soil. Think of it as an investment. Like any investment, you want it protected. In the winter garden, mulch is the security system. And you can take that to the bank.

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