Turning the Soil

Back in the fall we sowed some winter rye as a cover crop in many of our raised beds. When we finally got around to making our planting plans for 2013, we realized that we had some winter rye in a bed that we were hoping to get a very early start on — sowing salad greens the weekend of March 2. That's next weekend!

It all seemed very doable back in January when it was kind of warm, and when our memories of winter were informed by days like this from the warmest winter on record. But then it got really, really cold, and the ground froze solid. 

That was a problem, because part of dealing with a cover crop is turning it back into the soil, preferably 3-4 weeks before you plan to plant anything in that soil. That leaves time for the cover crop to decompose and for the roots to dry out, as they are exposed to the air when you turn the soil. We had already gotten a jump on killing the green part of the rye grass by letting the chickens eat it all, but there was no way in the world to turn that rock-hard soil now that it was frozen.

So we decided to take our unused cold frame and some plastic to try to fashion a (very rustic) cold frame to help the soil warm on sunny days. It didn't do much in the very cold days leading up to the blizzard. Didn't look like much, either:

But now that the blizzard is past, and we've had more seasonable temperatures, we were able to get out this week and take care of our previously buried crops. The melted snow was heavy on top of our carrot bed, but Kirk got it shoveled out and dug up our last carrots. PVC poles and plastic are tucked away in the garage, and all that's left is this big hole:

I'm guessing we have about two week's worth of carrots in the fridge from this final harvest. There are small carrot seedlings left out under a different greenhouse tunnel, so we may find additional carrots upon further exploration as March rolls in. Ideally, they will pick up their growing where they left off in the winter, and we will have some spring carrots. Or we might not have any more carrots until early summer. 

Kirk also pulled the last leeks, and again, I think we have a couple week's worth (plus our last two red onions from the summer). We have a lot of garlic, though, so we might be changing up the flavors of our recipes during the spring to feature garlic (and in another month or so, chives) instead of onion.

But the best news of all was that, contrary to all expectations, that crappy, plastic-covered cold frame actually worked! Kirk was able to use a pitchfork to turn the soil (although the parts along the very edges of the bed were still frozen), and I used a big garden rake to break up the semi-frozen clumps and mats of rye grass roots. It was more work than it would have been in another few weeks when things are properly thawed, but it was doable.

The next step was to get the chickens back out there to continue tilling:

Yesterday we only managed to get Dolley and Sally in there for an afternoon of rye grass snacking and soil scratching, while Martha and Abigail stayed in the main run. Today, though, Kirk grabbed them (stubborn Martha and Sally by the legs!) directly from the hen house first thing in the morning to get them all in there. He also used a PVC pipe as a hoop down the center to create a ridge pole for the plastic, so the chickens could have a roof to keep today's snow off of them while they worked. They are way better tillers than we are, and that soil looks awesome now. (I don't have a picture, though, because it was too dark — and I was tired after shoveling heavy, wet snow by the time we let the chickens clock out and go to bed. Sorry.)

I think we might get our first round of lettuces (and radishes and carrots) planted next weekend after all! 

We are keeping the plastic over the chicken tractor as a modified cold frame to keep the soil warm in the coming week. Our temperatures look to stay above freezing most of the time, so we might pull this off after all. I had really just about given up on an early March planting after the blizzard, but we have been pleasantly surprised by how effective a bit of plastic and glass can be in extending our growing season all winter long. Next year we will plan even a bit further ahead and mulch the areas we plan to plant first (instead of dealing with a cover crop). We'll also try to get more cold frames built and ready to use so the soil can be kept warm before the temperatures drop, and we can avoid this season's extra work and worry.

I think the chickens deserve a ton of credit for making this happen this year, despite our lack of foresight. With better planning (and learning from this year), hopefully they won't have to bail us out again!


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