Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a winter crop is to leave it alone. While it seems strange, some crops don’t just tolerate cold weather, they embrace it. As this report from Iowa State University shows, cold temperatures and especially frost are critical not just for growth, but in shaping how crops taste.
I’ve talked before about how farming practices are changing and this is a good example. I’m not saying to leave them uncovered when it snows seven inches, but as we head into a new year, it’s a perfect time to plant some winter crops and harvest others.
How can this specifically help your farm during the winter months? Let’s take a look.
Frost is Key for Winter Crop Development
Frost is not commonly a farmer’s friend. Most of us spend decades trying to protect plants from it, following all the tricks of the trade. We cover plants with trash bags, set up tarps and water the ground right before frost hits, as wet soil holds more heat.
In some cases, however, that’s not helpful. Take rose hips, for example. It’s a small, apple-like fruit that forms beneath rose flowers, one you can turn into a vitamin-C packed syrup. The plants need at least one light frost in order to ripen. The later the harvest, the more sugar generated by the plant. Without that change in temperature, as the University of Vermont’s report explains, you’ll have some very tart and not exactly tasty material.
Frost also helps parsnips develop their nut-like flavor and makes carrots crisper. For plants like this, it’s more beneficial to leave them out in the cold.
The same goes for winter grains. I’ve mentioned before about the benefits of growing winter wheat but in addition to helping future crops, they’re also extremely durable. A study done by the Ontario Soil Company found that frost helps winter wheat grow, based on data from fields in the Midwestern U.S. and Southern Canada.
Wheat left unprotected in frost-covered fields produced a higher yield than the same crop covered and planted in warmer temperatures.
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Which Winter Crop Should You Plant?
The first months of the year can be the coldest, but also the most productive for certain types of grain. Iowa State University officials recommend seeding red clover during this time, with February being one of the best options.
Clover helps improve your field’s soil structure by producing nitrogen. The data backs up the benefits. A 1998 report from Dupont Pioneer found a 12 bushel decrease in corn yield when the field was empty before planting, as opposed to one with red clover. This winter crop is pretty strong, able to handle temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit while also remaining undamaged by frost.
The Best Cold Winter Crop to Plant
The same is true for multiple other seeds, as you get a better gemination rate by planting them in winter instead of waiting for spring. These are seeds with hard shells that get softened by the freezing conditions outside. That includes barley, fava beans, cereal rye and just general wheat, along with false flax.
In fact, a 2014 report from Purdue University’s Crop Diagnosis Center called false flax the best option for planting a winter crop. Also called winter camelina, it’s a member of the mustard family and can handle extreme cold, surviving for up to 72 hours in temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fava beans are another example of a crop that thrives in winter. They germinate and start to grow in temperatures as cold as 36 degrees Fahrenheit. If they’re planted now, the first of the bunch should be ready for harvest by April.
It’s Never Too Cold to Plant a Winter Crop
Now that we’ve talked about what to plant and when, the only question left is where. The traditional method is to start plants in a greenhouse during the winter months, but you don’t need to do that with some grains. Instead, you plant them outside in the winter.
Take cereal rye for example. It’s one of the earliest winter crops, as records show German farmers planting it in late January and early February more than 2,000 years ago. Why? Because rye can germinate in cold weather as low as negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even with snow and ice covering the ground, that University of Vermont report I mentioned recommends planting cereal rye between one fourth to one half inch below the surface.
Plant with a broadcast seeder and then roll the seedbed. That reduces soil movement and makes sure seeds are in firm contact with the ground so they can easily germinate.
The same is true for other grains, with one change. For other winter wheat varieties, plant between one to two inches below the surface.