Farming in a Winter Wonderland

There's still plenty to do at Yale's organic garden, even though the ivy—and spinach—might be covered with snow.

ysfp_samadzadeh_spr_winter farm_3-2_post.jpg

Sean Fraga/YSFP

Winter officially ends in just a few weeks, but at the Yale Farm, we're still recovering from all the recent snowstorms. Winter life on the farm is dynamic, even if we're looking forward to the gradual transition to spring. Former Yale Sustainable Food Project employee Anastatia Curley wrote about our covered hoop houses last year. These take advantage of the Yale Farm's sunlight to effectively move the plastic-covered square footage of each house one and a half time zones to the south—letting us grow summer greens in winter, the natural way.

There's a lot of work to do, even though we're not harvesting greens every week, or weeding beds. On a recent workday, we peeked into the hoop houses just to check in (my glasses fogged instantly from the warmth!), then headed to the Reemay-covered rows of spinach and lettuce in quads one, two, and four of the farm. Reemay is a semi-transparent polyester fabric, also called just "row cover," that is placed over a single bed to let in enough light for a plant to survive while keeping the covered area warm and resisting excess moisture. It's all about trapping in air that will get heated under the sun—think of it as a miniature hoop house spanning just one bed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the farm lies in rest. It's important to leave either the last rotation of plants or a hardy crop like winter rye in the beds all through winter.

Unfortunately, recent snow had weighed down the Reemay a bit too much. We unfastened its folds from the hoops straddling each bed and shook off the snow. The lettuce was having a hard time, but despite freezing temperatures the spinach looked just fine.

And there are plants on the farm that don't need to be tricked into thinking it's warmer than it is. Deep underground, there's work afoot for the shallots, garlic, and tulips that we harvest in the spring and early summer. The bulbs we planted in late fall mature all through the winter.

But they could use some help, which is why we want to create an environment in which air is trapped near the ground, buffering the temperature to keep the bulbs dormant. We also use sustainable leaf mulch made from autumn leaves from Yale's campus: only about six inches of leaf mulch on top of the beds of bulbs. The thickness of the mulch prevents the leaves from flattening down during snowfall, and the entire layer acts like a blanket: if your own bedroom gets a little hot or a little cold, for example, your temperature under your blankets as you lie in bed stays about the same (except that we want the bulbs to stay chilly, not cozy).

Meanwhile, the rest of the farm lies in rest. It's important to leave either the last rotation of plants or a hardy crop like winter rye in the beds all through winter, to keep the soil aerated and in place. In addition, the nutrients in the decaying plants enrich the soil and build up organic matter in preparation for spring.

But slowly, the snow is melting. Planning for the spring and summer seasons has already begun. By the end of March we'll be rolling up the Reemay and enjoying the first crocuses of the season. Spring is almost here!