Fall Cover Crops

Weed (9) - Copy

Leave a patch of ground bare and Mother Nature will soon fill it with something and, more often than not, with something you don’t want (like what’s in the picture).

Take vegetable gardens for example.  As we harvest the last of the beans we rip out the plants, maybe rake the soil out nice and level then go inside to wait five or six months until it’s warm enough to venture out again.  Meanwhile weed seeds blow over and settle in for the winter.

What we should be doing is following Mother Nature’s lead because she really is trying to tell us something.  Instead of weeds we can be covering that ground with something that is more beneficial to our garden.  This is called growing a fall cover crop.

Cover crops are fast growing crops that will grow in the colder months and then provide nutrients in the spring when we turn them over.  They are also called soil builders because they’re planted specifically to improve soil health.  The most common cover crops used are perennial rye, legume mixes and broad beans (fava).

The fibrous, shallow root systems of cover crops help loosen soil and also aid in maintaining the living web that exists in the ground by providing protection and by feeding the earthworms and microorganisms which in turn help decomposition later on.

Cover crops also conserve excess nutrients which may be lost through the winter through leaching.  Some, like legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil which benefits the next crop planted.

Sow cover crops in September and October as you are harvesting the last of your vegetables.  This will give it time to establish.  In the spring cut the crop down to a manageable height, usually about 2-4 inches, then, with a sharp spade, dig and turn the crop over.  This should be done about a month before you expect to plant the first vegetables so that it can start to composts down.

You can also sheet mulch over top of the cut down crop if you wish, using layers of newspaper that will break down quickly.  Add your amendments such as Sea Soil and compost on top then plant as usual.

While your vegetables grow the decomposing cover crop underneath is adding organic matter to your garden bed along with feeding the beneficial life below the soil surface.  It really is a cycle that you’re trying to create where there is something growing at all times and also decomposing.

If you’re planning on planting broad beans as a fall cover crop then make sure you pick some up in spring when the seeds are in the store otherwise they might be sold out by the time fall rolls around.

This fall fill that empty vegetable garden with a cover crop that will work for you though the winter otherwise Mother Nature will sneak in when you’re not looking and put something there that you won’t like.

Shirley Eppler

October 2014