Sunday, November 9, 2008

Preparing fields for a long winter's nap

After nine beautiful fall days, most of the leaves have fallen and the fields are brown.

"What do you do in the winter?" is a frequently asked question. The first item on the list is to clean up vegetable gardens. We plant many of our crops through black plastic mulch. This warms the soil, controls weeds, preserves moisture, and protects plants from soil-born disease. Under the plastic mulch is trickle irrigation hose, which places water only in the root zone, not into the air as in overhead irrigation. Using these plastics is very helpful. However, they must be removed from the fields every year. Our tomatoes are staked and trellised, so those fields have additional materials to remove.

This work is labor intensive. First, strings must be cut at each stake and yanked out of the plants. Then the wooden stakes must be pulled out of the ground. String is bagged and discarded. We pile the stakes on a wagon, sorting 4-foot lengths for next year's tomatoes and broken ones for deer fence. The brushhog chops off plants just above ground level. Then the plastic must be lifted and rolled. Finally, the drip hose is pulled.Fields are ready to be disked and planted with rye. Rye is a cover crop which prevents soil erosion by wind and water throughout the winter, and adds organic matter to the soil when it is plowed under in the spring.

Penn State is studying ways to recycle ag plastic. We would have to haul it 500 miles to a collection site, which is not practical. So our used plastic is collected by our garbage hauler.