It may seem strange to think about cold weather when it is still scorching but cold weather is right around the corner. For a homestead to be sustainable, and continue to be profitable, it is important to keep producing throughout the fall and winter months. Fall and winter gardening is an important skill to learn, as is basic animal husbandry for the colder months.
The type of produce you can grow depends on your climate, but growing food in winter is much like growing food in the summer. In fact, with just four simple techniques, cold-weather gardening is easier and takes much less time than the summer garden.
The first thing you need to do for a successful winter garden is to plant the right veggies. You can certainly plant summer squash in the fall, but you will not get a harvest. The best vegetables to plant are arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, miner’s lettuce, fava beans, kale, leeks, shallots, garlic, lettuce, mustard greens, and spinach.
Broccoli, cabbage, kale, mustard greens, fava beans, and spinach all do well with little to no protection. You can mulch them with compost and straw but they do not need to be covered any more than that.
The second important winter gardening tip is to plant on time. Most cold-hardy vegetables should be planted between mid-summer and early fall. This gives them a chance to become well-established before the cold weather hits. In order to be ready, order your fall seeds now, remove any plants that have stopped producing, and begin preparing your beds for fall plantings.
The third technique for successful year-round gardening is learning how to overwinter certain crops. Overwintering is simply leaving cold-hardy crops in the ground. You will receive minimal harvests throughout the coldest months, but once spring arrives these plants will start growing again and producing abundant harvests well before you have planted your spring beds. Broccoli, cabbage, Fava beans, kale, mustard greens, and spinach can overwinter without any protection. Arugula, Brussels Sprouts, leeks, lettuce, scallions, carrots, and Asian greens need to be grown under some protection.
That brings us to our fourth winter gardening tip: grow your crops in a low tunnel. A low tunnel is an inexpensive alternative to a greenhouse that you can either buy or build yourself. If you want to build your own greenhouse, “Poor-Man’s Greenhouse” is a great place to start. If a greenhouse is too much right now, build a low tunnel.
In order to build your own low tunnel, you will need a hole digger, 10′ lengths of 1/2” PVC pipe, 10′ width of row cover material and/or greenhouse plastic.
1. Prepare your garden bed. The width of the bed should be 5 feet. The length depends on the size you want your bed to be. The length of your bed will determine the number of PVC pipe lengths you need.
2. Plant before adding the cover for ease. Plant taller crops in the center of the bed and shorter plants near the border of the bed.
3. Drive a 12” hole into the ground at one corner of the bed.
4. Drive a 12” hole directly opposite the first hole, on the opposite side of the bed.
5. Repeat this process every 5′ down the length of your garden bed.
6. For each hole, insert one end of a 10′ length of 1/2” PVC pipe. Insert the other end of the PVC pipe into the opposite hole, creating a hoop over the bed.
7. Unroll the cover of choice. Row covers provide protection to 28 degrees Fahrenheit and are water and air permeable. When temperatures dip below that, add a layer of greenhouse plastic.
8. Pull the cover over your bed. Gather the material at the ends of the bed, cinch and secure tightly with rope. Tie the end of each rope to a secure stake, pulling tight.
9. Secure the material down each length of the bed with rocks or bricks.
10. Remember to open your low tunnel if you get a warm snap. Your plants will steam if they are heated under plastic.
Cold weather also requires us to consider the health and comfort of any animals we may have on the homestead. Regardless of the animals you have, careful consideration should be given to lighting, heating, airflow, water, and feeding.
Chickens, and other homestead birds, will generally begin molting in the fall. After the molting process is complete, the decreased daylight hours tend to slow their level of egg production. If you want to continue receiving the same amount of eggs, stimulate egg-laying by placing a 40 watt light bulb in the coop with a reflector 7 feet above the floor. This amount of light is sufficient for 200 square feet. Do not leave the light on for more than 10 hours a day. That is all they need for egg production and any more than that will overstimulate your birds.
Protect your birds from extreme drafts, but do not over-wrap your coop. If there is not enough airflow, humidity will build up in the coop, making frostbite more likely. Ammonia gas will also build up from droppings, possibly damaging the lungs of your birds.
Allow your chickens an outside space to scratch and exercise. While they are free-ranging, check the floor and roof of the coop to ensure they are waterproof.
Supplement their food with kitchen scraps and/or vitamin-filled feed. Add a small amount of molasses to their drinking water to help prevent freezing. Break through any ice that forms.
Eggs can freeze quickly, so gather them at least twice a day. In extreme cold, protect exposed parts from frostbite by covering your roosters‘ wattles and combs with Vaseline.
Rabbits need to be protected from direct contact with cold winds, rain, and snow. Draft-proof their pens, allowing for adequate ventilation. Provide extra bedding, extra calories, and clean, fresh water. Unless you are raising rabbits indoors, winter is a bad time to allow breeding.
If you live in an area with extremely cold winters, place a piece of plywood across the top of their pen. This drops the ceiling of the pen, keeping the heat in longer.
Goat and sheep farmers can keep their animals protected from the elements by providing a covered shelter so they can get out of the snow, rain and extreme temperatures. Ammonia build-up causes respiratory problems, so do not completely enclose the shelter.
Provide extra calories in the form of both extra hay and some type of concentrate such as cracked corn, oats, or sweet feed. Add molasses to their water to prevent freezing, or use a submersible water heater.
If you shear your sheep, do so early enough to allow regrowth before the cold weather hits.
If your animals will kid during the cold months, provide even more calories to the pregnant does, extra bedding for the babies, and allow the kids exclusive access to their mother’s milk for the first four to six weeks of life.
Check animals every day, even twice a day, for any signs of weather-related discomfort. Cold weather takes a toll and can have devastating effects on your flocks and herds within days. Look for changes in skin color (white pigs are red, for example), bunching up more than usual and lethargic animals. If any animal displays signs of distress, immediately begin heating them up with heat lamps, vigorous toweling, and warm drinking water. Once the animal looks and feels better, check their living area for extreme drafts and leaks. Make certain the bedding is clean and dry, and provide the animal with extra calories for a few days.
Don’t forget to care for the most important mammals on your farm. Humans are susceptible to the dangers of cold weather as well, and precautions should be taken to ensure the safety and comfort of everyone who works the homestead. Wear appropriate clothing, especially gloves, hats, and footwear. Shed wet clothes as soon as possible and thoroughly dry off before redressing. The cold months are a good time to strengthen your mind – spend time reading both for pleasure and to research upcoming homestead projects.
It can feel sad when the busy, productive days of summer yield your last harvest. But there is no need to abandon your self-sufficient homestead dream once summer fades. Growing and raising food through the fall and winter months is possible. It just requires some planning, a slight change of mindset, and a willingness to work in the cold. If this is your first winter providing food for yourself and your family, make a checklist of the things that must be done weekly and daily. Getting into a cold-weather routine is the most difficult part, but you will be rewarded with delicious, healthy food that you grew and raised yourself. And isn’t that one of the best parts of homesteading?
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