Preparing for Extreme Winters with Intensive Straw Mulching

 In Building Your Permaculture Property, Online Community, Soil, Verge Permaculture Academy, Water

When your farm is located, like ours, in a zone 3b spot challenged by wind, drought, erosion, and cold, protecting the soil and collecting water become major concerns. And so we’ve settled on the intensive hay-mulching method developed by Ruth Stout…and the experiment is paying off!

Ruth Stout method during our 2nd summer of mulching. We used much deeper mulch this time and as you can see, there is very little weeding to be done!

We’ve completed three successful years on our small permaculture farm in Alberta, and we’re now in the process of tucking our garden into bed before the first snow flies sometime in November. 

How and why did we choose the Ruth Stout method of mulching? Well, one of the very first things a land steward must do is simply observe the land and how it interacts with all the elements of its ecosystem.

Our farm is situated just below the top of a very high, bare ridge, with few to no trees around us, in a transition zone between Alberta’s dry open grassland and its more lightly wooded foothills. The winds that howl through here year round regularly reach up to 110 kilometers per hour, and there is nothing to stop them. 

Most folks around us would agree that the area is ‘semi-arid’, as we receive very little rain through the growing season but have many long, hot summers that extend well into the fall. Rainfall and rainwater collection have therefore become an obsession of ours, as we’ve tried many methods of hydrating our landscape and reducing the amount of watering required to keep our garden alive throughout the summer. Adding the last two summers of back-to-back droughts has certainly had us feeling the pressure to figure out how to keep our soils moist and productive.

In contrast, winters here are cold and dry, although we get a decent cover of snow and experience the other end of the extreme temperature spectrum, reaching up to -40 Celsius on our worst week, ranging from December to February based on the La Niña or El Niño patterns that particular year. 

The garden ready for its third winter. Sunflowers which were rotated to clean the soil, are left standing to act as windbreaks for the new apple trees and snow fences for moisture accumulation. Good night, garden – rest well 🙂

Our spring melt is typically quite short, maybe two weeks long following a good snowfall. During this time the largest volume of our annual water rushes across the bare fields, down our ridge, and into the valley below where it is drained away by man made ditches emptying the natural water basin a couple miles from our farm. This area used to be a beautiful watershed and habitat for hundreds of local and transient waterfowl until the government decided it was more important to make money off the arable land taxes. But that’s another story in and of itself.

In May and June, we will see most of our rainfall for the entire year, and this can also vary depending on the year: whether it is spread out over several weeks, or whether we get all of it in a two week period, as we did this year, and then no more for the rest of the summer and fall. 

With such wild extremes in our temperature and water collection opportunities, one might wonder how it is even possible to grow anything except dandelions out here! And to be honest, we wondered the same when we first started gardening on this wild prairie. 

We didn’t find much on YouTube about permaculture gardening in extreme places located in a cold or very cold climate. Outside of being able to hunt down a couple local seed companies that did actually specialize in heritage zone 2-3 seeds, we were very much at the mercy of learning the cycles of our land and beginning to try developing our own seed varieties that would be accustomed to the insane shifts of weather, year after year.

Over our years on this land, our gardening method has been guided both by seeing how the harsh wind depletes soil moisture and plant development, and by observing the water cycle andhow all our topsoil will simply wash out down to the valley unless we intervene to help slow and spread the flow of the water. 

We’ve come to realize that whatever water we receive is precious, and that we must find ways to capture and store it for long-term sustainability if we want to be able to grow water-dependent vegetables.

Years of commercial agriculture, tilling the land and breaking up the soil systems, left our land susceptible to erosion. To remedy this, we’ve learned we must protect and increase the organic matter and root systems, which has led us to adopt a no-till philosophy following a short season of intentional disturbance. 

And so, we’ve found two fundamental keys are necessary each fall to ensure a successful vegetable harvest in the following spring.

The first key is this: Chop and Drop.

Almost 100% of our non-edible organic matter (think carrot tops, potato tops, beet leaves, pea vines, etc.) remains in the garden after we harvest the roots/pods. We do this by intentionally dropping the tops into our wheelbarrow (always leaving the root system in the ground if it’s something like squash or bean), chopping them up with a heavy scissor tool to create a nice ‘salad’, and then spreading them back on the soil where we pulled them from. 

This practice alone allows us to ensure we are adding back much needed minerals and nutrients to the soil, and also covers the earth where the vegetables were growing so that creatures such as earthworms are invited to come and begin breaking down the organic matter. 

The second key is this: Mulch, Baby!

For the second autumn in a row now, we have made sure to heavily mulch absolutely every crevice of our garden with a thick (3-5 inch) layer of barley or wheat straw.  

The exception to this is if our cows and sheep have produced a decent amount of manure mixed with old bedding over the previous season; we collect this and spread it over the areas that need a bit more coverage.

Most folks will tell you manure needs to sit for well over a year before you can use it in the garden to avoid burning your crops, but we have found that because the manure has been breaking down in the heat all summer, and then is further refined by the cold and snow over the winter, we have yet to find an issue with applying it direct to the garden with this method. We have had nothing but beautiful vegetables for two years now, and in fact the onions seem to absolutely love it. Chalk it up as a ‘win’ for gardening in our crazy climate!

The garden in mid-winter: several inches of snow held in place by the mulch

However, back to the importance of the mulch. This system alone, adopted from Ruth Stout’s method, is perhaps the most effective and low-cost answer to both our erosion susceptibility and our need to capture water in our garden. All winter long, the snow drifts and snags and builds on the straw, and in spring as it begins to melt, it is filtered down into the soil and slowed enough to saturate the ground instead of just evaporating in the wind or running off the field.

Additionally, the mulch is deep enough to act as a dam for the rush of water coming down the hill off the ridge, effectively preventing erosion of the soil, and capturing both the nutrients from our corrals, which are conveniently located upstream of the garden, and our neighbor’s beautiful topsoil which runs off his field every year thanks to his ongoing tilling practices. 

After just one full year of observing this cycle, we only had to water this garden a handful of times throughout the season because the mulch did such an amazing job of holding the moisture in through the intense summer heat. We had zero slugs, and when the mulch was pulled back in the spring, there were wonderful wriggly earthworms all over the place. Additionally, weeding this half-acre garden took only two hours a week because of the weed suppression this method provided.

A huge river of rainwater is slowed by the mulch, ensuring both capture of moisture and protection of soil and plants during heavy spring downpours.

And the takeaway lesson? Learning how to grow a successful garden in a cold-climate environment is definitely challenging, but the good news is that it is definitely possible! The key is to be open to learning what the land has to teach you, and then taking that information and creating a framework of solutions that achieve multiple goals while supporting the overall system. 

However, none of these amazing ideas would have come to our minds as we began this journey on our farm if we hadn’t learned more about permaculture and how a right relationship with the land actually lends itself to understanding how to work with it for the benefit of all species. We are so grateful for communities like Verge Permaculture where learning and discussion about earth care, people care, and future care are front and center!

If you’re looking for more resources or just want to connect with other like-minded people also learning to develop their permaculture properties, we cannot recommend Verge’s Academy and free online community enough. Join the conversation today!

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