There is something deeply satisfying about having a job that goes to sleep with the trees. Our longest work days correspond to the longest days of the year, so by the time we hear the first geese call overhead, we are pretty ready to start putting the farm to sleep.
For the vegetable fields, that means mowing the last standing crops, pulling up plastic mulch, discing in the crop residues and planting cover crops. If we have our act together, which—remarkably—we did this year, all of the beds are cover cropped except for the lettuce, greens, and root crops that carry us through the Thanksgiving markets.
We tried three combinations of cover crops this year. First we put in a mix of winter rye and crimson clover, and when we ran out of that, we seeded a bed of oats and peas. The oats and peas will probably die at some point this winter, but then they will become mulch, which will still protect the soil.
We also seeded a mix of spring barley and Austrian winter peas, which, like the rye/clover mix, should survive until spring. Our main goal with cover crops this time of year is to have roots in the ground at all times. Above-ground, the leaves have dropped and all signs point to sleep, but below-ground, life is teeming. Soils are still warm and roots are no longer burdened with leaves, fruit, and other pulls on their productivity. They continue to grow rapidly, exchanging mineral nutrients for sugary secretions, they also help feed the vast community of arthropods, worms, and microbes that do the work of breaking down all those vegetable plants. And if the roots belong to a tree or berry bush, they are gathering and storing the nutrients they need for spring leaf-out.
All this activity will eventually slow way down when the ground freezes, but the soil is one part of the farm that will never fully go to sleep.