It’s fall and our annual and vegetable gardens are winding down for the season. Now is the time to invest a little extra time and effort to prepare your soil for next year. Whether your garden is large or small, all annual planting beds will benefit from the addition of a winter cover crop.
Benefits of Cover Crops
A cover crop is a fast-growing, low-maintenance crop that can be used to protect your garden and landscaping beds in fall and winter. Depending on the crop you choose, it can provide many benefits to your garden, including…
- Stabilizing soil and preventing erosion
- Adding organic matter back into the soil to nurture later crops
- Adding nutrients to the soil that have been used by previous crops
- Suppressing disease that can wither new crops even before they start
- Repressing weeds that will take over a garden
- Improving soil structure with aeration and better drainage
- Encouraging beneficial insects that will help later crops
Recommended Cover Crops
Different cover crops work best in different areas, and the climate, soil type and growing season will help determine which cover crops will work best for your gardening needs. The most popular recommended cover crops for our area are oats, rye and wheat.
Sow 6-8 weeks before the first hard frost. Planted early, oats will provide a quick covering with the added benefit of providing an early planting time for next spring’s crops. Oats are not winter hardy, but they will grow in the fall and die in the winter, leaving behind nutritious mulch that will easily decompose when incorporated into the soil in the spring. This is a great cover crop choice for low- or no-till gardens. Sow at 2 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. for the best coverage.
- Winter Rye
Sow 2-4 weeks before the first hard frost. This is a good choice for gardeners who have late season crops and don’t want to cut off that last harvest. If hardened off before frost arrives, winter rye will continue to grow over the winter. Rye is a vigorous grower and can be difficult to turn in the spring, so bear that in mind depending on what crops you will be planting in spring. Sow at 3-4 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. for appropriate coverage.
- Winter Wheat
Sow 2-4 weeks before the first hard frost. Wheat will cover quickly but is not as aggressive as winter rye. Winter wheat is also leafier, making it easier than winter rye to turn into the soil in the spring. Sow at 3 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. to provide good coverage.
Cornell University provides a tool to assist you in choosing the correct cover crop for your situation. (http://covercrops.cals.cornell.edu/decision-tool.php)
Planting Cover Crops
Before planting a cover crop, clean out garden beds, removing all roots and plant material. Compost all plant matter that is not diseased. Broadcast seed evenly and cover with soil. Water thoroughly when planting and when necessary during dry periods. In the spring, till or fork oats into the planting bed and you are ready to plant. For winter rye and wheat, mow or chop tops 4 weeks before planting leaving cut cover crop on top to dry. Till or fork dried wheat and rye into the bed before planting.
With the appropriate cover crop, you can protect your garden’s most valuable asset – the soil – and be sure it is ready for spring planting.