Farm Life

10 Essential Winter Chores for the Farmer and Gardener

Winter may be the “off-season”, but I find I’ve been working long hours anyway. Maybe not as many hours as in summer, when every chore seems an urgent matter of pure survival. Winter work has more of a squirrel feeling. It’s a kind of preparation for the busy time when I know I will have no more free minutes to learn new skills, prepare new ground, or build new structures. Winter sculpts the bones for the growing season.

1. Winter is a time for building projects

construction projects

My hens are in desperate need of a new coop. It’s not so much that their current coop is bad, it’s just that it’s in the wrong place and too big to move. The new coop is smaller, more agile, and best of all- built in a nice shady place where the girls can chill out, instead of over the sunniest spot in the garden.

2. Winter is a time for preparing new gardens

new market garden

I’ve been busy preparing a large chunk of my back field for expanded vegetable production. There’s more work yet to do, but the foundation has been laid for a promising harvest.

3. Winter is a time to cut and stack wood

Trees die and they fall down. Limbs break during storms. Sometimes when this happens in the right place, I leave the logs on the ground so they can provide habitat for wild creatures. But all too often they fall on the driveway, on the garden, or another inconvenient place. These logs need to be cut, stacked, and put away to dry. We don’t have a wood stove in our home yet, but we hope to add one in the future. Meanwhile, we enjoy using some of the wood for bonfires and craft projects.

4. Winter is a time to prepare for next year’s market stand.

tomato crates

From the dry and boring work of insurance policy comparison to the more fun and creative design projects, I would never have time to work on these things during market season. I am especially excited about these custom tomato crates that I designed and built for multipurpose use. They’re sturdy enough to take into the field at picking time, shallow enough to hold exactly one layer of tomatoes (no bruising), they stack neatly for easy transport, and they’re pretty enough to use as a part of the display in the booth.

5. Winter is a time to grow.

seedling nursery

I’ll fill and refill this indoor seedling nursery multiple times during the winter, as the earliest crops are planted outside and the later crops begin to grow into their space. I’m growing vegetables for the market garden, new test crops to evaluate for the future, and all kinds of herbs and native plants. This work starts in December or January, when I load up my refrigerator with trays of seeds for cold stratification, and continues until June when the last crops are planted outside.

6. Winter is a time to lay the foundation.

bean trellis

In this new edible landscaping garden, I not only built a strong foundation at the soil level with local compost, reclaimed cardboard (as a biodegradable weed blocker), and free local wood chips. I also built a vertical foundation for vining plants using naturally fallen branches gathered from the tree line. That means less wood for me to chop and stack, more opportunities to grow beautiful food (like scarlet runner beans), and less waste and consumerism all around.

7. Winter is a time for tradition.

three rutgers

My grandpa always grew Rutgers tomatoes in his garden, and these incredibly delicious heirloom tomatoes inspired me to become a gardener myself, and influenced my path as an open pollinated vegetable grower. The Rutgers tomato was introduced in 1934, as a joint effort between Rutgers University and Campbell Soup. It was a favorite tomato variety in victory gardens and large tomato farms alike, and was widely grown for many years. This heirloom variety fell out of favor somewhere along the way, displaced by newer hybrids. Seeds called Rutgers are still available, though they aren’t all the same. I am growing plants from a variety of sources this year, hoping to find some that taste just like my grandpa’s. If nature cooperates with my plans, I hope to grow enough Rutgers tomatoes for the farmer’s market this coming summer.

8. Winter is a time for reflection.

I keep a detailed garden journal where I record my inputs, work efforts, harvests, weather, and observations. Winter is a good time to review what worked and what didn’t, which varieties are worth scaling up for the market, which varieties won’t be planted here again, and which varieties may deserve another try in a different part of the garden. Notes are absolutely essential for a gardener or farmer, especially one with her hand in so many different pies.

9. Winter is a time to learn new skills.

stack of books

I read stacks on stacks of books. Winter is a great time to wrap up in a warm blanket and learn new things. But not all learning comes from books, and it’s important to remember that we can also learn from our friends, neighbors, and relatives by helping each other out. Offer to help a friend inspect a bee hive, work together to can tomatoes, weed the bean patch, or pick walnuts. You’ll learn something local and new while strengthening relationships and building community. I helped a friend with a controlled burn this winter, and it was very educational as well as incandescent fun.

10. Winter is a time to train.

Don’t forget to maintain your physical fitness over winter. Get outside and take a walk as often as you can. Practice yoga, strength training, or your favorite sport. I know from personal experience that if I begin the gardening or farming season out of shape, I’m likely to end it in injury. Taking good care of your mind and body over winter is a sound investment.