Organic Garden Weathers Winter, Waits for Spring

Lane Barton

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With snow falling hard last week, many students had to adjust to the cold realities of winter in Walla Walla, but for the organic garden and its caretakers, this kind of snowfall is just another part of their seasonal cycle. 

Due to the naturally cold winters in Walla Walla and the frequency of snow blocking out sunlight, the garden usually lays dormant for approximately four months of the year.

“[Students] pretty much put [the garden] to sleep and just walk away from it from the middle of November until the middle of March,” said Landscape Supervisor Bob Biles.

But while no active caretaking is undergone during these winter months, steps are taken in the fall to prepare the garden for the following spring.

“During the winter we do cover crop … we use peas and will plant them in the fall before the ground freezes, and they’ll hibernate when it snows and then start growing in the spring,” said senior Genevieve Jones, head of the Organic Garden Club. “They’ll put nitrogen back in the soil so that when we start our crop rotation, the soil is more replenished.”

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While cover crops are the technique of choice for the Organic Garden Club during winter, they have also used other options to combat the cold. One method is a cold frame, or a wooden box designed to insulate anything that it covers, which was recently designed by a member of the club to increase the growing duration of a small crop.

Another more ambitious project that Biles, Jones and other members of the Organic Garden Club have discussed is the possibility of creating hoop houses for use during the winter months. These houses would use multiple hooped coverings to create zones of insulation to protect plants during cold weather. Hoop houses can be big enough to cover large amounts of crops, creating a possible avenue to continue production from November to March. But Biles notes this is a complicated project, and not something the Organic Garden Club is capable of doing immediately. 

“Actually having some sophisticated infrastructure is kind of beyond their capacity,” said Biles.

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Beyond the capability of building the houses, there is also the question of how they would be managed. One major challenge for the organic garden is that students are not around all year––winter break especially poses a problem for garden caretakers. The increased need to protect crops from the cold combined with decreased volunteers on campus would make it difficult to maintain the garden during this time, even if something like a hoop house was built. Additionally, there are other practical matters the Organic Garden Club needs to address in order to help the garden during more productive times than winter.

“Even before the hooped beds, we’d probably go for some new irrigation drip tape, because our drip tape is pretty chewed through. So that might come before the project,” said Jones.

While the possibility of hoop houses to help with winter growing is intriguing, it is unlikely to come to fruition until a member of the club sets out to complete what Jones estimates to be a two-year project. In the meantime, the organic garden will do exactly what it does every winter and wait out the cold snow until the warmth of spring arrives.