Winter Farm & Garden Chores … and Gratitude

Dear Farm Friends,

Happy new year to you!

First, many thanks to our community for your donations at year-end. We are heartened and humbled by your response to our appeal for financial support: Thanks to you, we are now halfway to our goal of raising $75,000 by Earth Day!

If you haven’t already, it’s not too late to donate to help us get 2021 off to a strong start and move us further along to our goal. Visit our 15th Anniversary Campaign page for a summary of 2020 accomplishments, the hows and whys of donating, and a photo garden that offers a peek into Friends of Alemany Farm’s 15 years at the farm. And if you’re able, make a gift!

This month, we’re piloting a new feature. Since we still can’t invite you out to the farm to learn, grow, and volunteer with us, we’re bringing some of our farm knowledge to you. So gather round for some seasonal know-how from our farmers. It may even help you out with your home garden if you have one:

Winter Tasks and Tales from the Farm

panel of three photos: at left, a sign reading "Cover Crop" in front of a lush bed of green plants; at center, a garden bed of kale with straw mulch on the ground; at right, two people plant a very young, leafless tree on a sunny day

Cover crop … Mulching … Fruit tree care

If you’ve visited Alemany Farm in winter or early spring, you’ve likely seen some lush beds labeled “Cover Crop.” If you’ve volunteered, you may have helped sow or chop these beds. Co-Director Jack Thomas offers some fundamentals:

Cover Crop: What is it, and why is it good for the Earth, for vegetables, and for people?

The gist: A key component of environmentally regenerative agriculture is building soil organic matter (SOM). Global soil fertility is plummeting at a rate of 23 billion tons per year due to industrial agriculture practices like tillage and fertilizing with synthetic chemicals. These methods decrease the soil’s organic matter, remove its ability to hold water like a sponge, and effectively bulldoze habitat for billions of essential soil microbes per teaspoon of soil. Bad.

What can you do? One method of increasing SOM and building soil health is with cover crops. Each fall we sow a special mixture of seeds into selected beds where we will not grow food crops during winter months. These plants — fava, vetch, rye, bell beans, and others — are “nitrogen fixing.” This means that as they grow, they draw nitrogen into the soil from the atmosphere and store it in their root system, to be taken up later in the plant’s life to help with flower and fruit production. Not only do these cover crops restore nitrogen — a vital ingredient in all green growth — they also catch raindrops, minimizing soil compaction. And their root systems help retain soil structure to boot.

Each spring, we chop down the cover crop before it can take up the nitrogen in its root. We leave the roots in place, leaving the soil intact, rich with microbiology, and flush with nitrogen to nourish the crops that will grow there in the spring and summer. No tractor, no chemicals, no electricity; just a respectful, intelligent, mutually beneficial collaboration between people and nature.


Co-Director Abby Bell offers the whys and wherefores of some other winter chores:

Mulch! If your garden is not mulched, this is a good time to make sure that your soils are covered.

Covering the exposed soil around your plants suppresses weed growth, reduces erosion, retains soil moisture and warmth, and builds organic matter content in your soil. At Alemany Farm, we like to use straw to mulch around our annual veggies, and wood chips to mulch around hardier plants like fruit trees, perennials, and pathways. (Your local garden store may have other mulch options.) Your soil’s beneficial microorganisms and fungi feed on the mulch and eventually help it decompose into your soil, adding rich humus or organic matter.

Note: Do not mix the mulch into the soil. Keep it as a covering or else the decomposition process can tie up nitrogen within your soil. Also, be aware that mulch in the winter creates habitat for slugs and snails, so keep on the lookout for these garden pests.

Fruit Trees

Bare root fruit trees: If you have space and desire to plant a fruit tree in your garden, now is the time! Many nurseries are now taking orders for trees. Winter is the time to plant those trees in your gardens. Bare root trees are dormant and look like a stick and some roots, but don’t be fooled! They are just sleeping and will leaf and bud out in the springtime. Not only are bare root trees easier to transport and plant than trees transplanted from containers, but they often have better performance because they are not root bound, do not go through transplant shock, and they tend to have more time for their roots to acclimate, grow, and take hold before the spring comes.

Winter fruit tree pruning: January in the Bay Area, once your deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, is a good time to think about winter pruning. This is an opportunity to begin or continue a conversation with your tree, to support its structure and air flow in order to enhance fruit production in the spring and summer. Remember that winter pruning creates a stimulating response for the trees. We hope to offer some winter pruning classes at Alemany Farm this year if we can safely do so.


Thank you again for helping to grow food security and ecological knowledge in San Francisco by supporting Alemany Farm! Be on the lookout for news about upcoming workshops and other events. With your support, we can look forward together to the next 15 years of local grassroots action!

With gratitude,

The Farm Team