Having a fall garden can be rewarding, but let’s face it. Sometimes we are just ready to be done. Gardening up until the frost nips at our toes isn’t always in the cards. Whether we are just wore out or have had plenty from the harvest, cover crops can be a simple option to improve your garden this fall without a lot of work.
Rather than growing them for food, cover crops are grown and then tilled back into the soil so that their nutrients can be released back into the soil. Kinda like composting without building the pile….
Why To Consider Cover Crops this Fall
I haven’t always been this way and admittedly, until a few years ago I’d never even heard of a cover crop. But, cover crops are an important part of sustainable agriculture practices. They are so beneficial in so many ways. Everyone should utilize them once in a while.
- Like I already mentioned, cover crops are simple. They allow you to put the hustle and bustle of the gardening and harvest to a rest. Which, for a lot of us, is much needed and much appreciated.
- Cover crops slowly release nutrients back into the soil. Depending on which crop you choose, some have the ability to pull nitrogen from the air and slowly release it back into the soil in a soluble form. Some add phosphorus back into the soil.
- All cover crops add organic matter to your soil. Instead of having to wait and build a pile of compost these crops build it up all by themselves in a shorter period of time than it takes to compost material. Cover crops are allowed to grow and tilled directly back into the soil allowing them to build up organic matter. Which is why they are also sometimes referred to as green manure.
- They help with weed prevention. When you have dense crops covering your garden space, it’s really difficult for weeds to get established. Of course, if you plant a crop that does not die off naturally in the winter, you will have to catch it before it flowers in the spring, or you’re just going to have the same problem….
- They prevent soil erosion. We have a huge problem with this on our current homestead. Winter snow and rain really tears down the soil in our garden area. But, if we plant a dense crop, it helps keep the soil right where we need it meaning we don’t have a depressing, barren mess come spring time….
5 Cover Crops to Consider
While we typically think of growing oats for food, they can be an incredibly useful cover crop. Oats will help keep the weeds out and the soil in. They also produce a lot of organic matter and are fantastic for clay soil (like ours).
Oats will die off naturally in the winter, which means less work in the spring. About 4 pounds of oats will cover a 100 square foot space. Then, just lightly cover them with soil and let them do their thing.
Ryegrass is incredibly easy to grow and very fast growing. It has the same benefits as oats, it helps combat weeds and soil erosion and produces a lot of organic matter.
Ryegrass, unlike oats, will die off in the winter and resume growth in the spring. Ryegrass can also keep small seeds from germinating (think carrots) as it decomposes, so keep that in mind. You’ll want to use about a pound per 100 square feet and cover it lightly with soil.
Peas are legumes, which means they are nitrogen fixers. They can produce up to 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre!! Wow…. I don’t know about you, but I find that impressive. Of course, we don’t have an entire acre garden (we only live on an acre). But, that’s still pretty cool.
They are also quick growing and great at smothering out weeds making them a good choice for a lot of gardeners.
Peas do die off in the winter. You’ll want about 5 pounds of peas for every 100 square feet. Again, cover lightly with soil.
Buckwheat is a very quick grower. And makes an excellent crop to smother weeds and help prevent soil erosion.
Buckwheat will die off in the winter. You’ll plant about 1 pound for every 100 square feet. Cover it lightly with soil.
Another nitrogen fixer, hairy vetch can produce plenty of nitrogen for your garden. It also grows very quickly and can help smother out weeds.
However, unlike peas, hairy vetch will resume growth in the spring. You will plant about a pound per 100 square feet.
When to Plant Cover Crops
Cold hardy cover crops like hairy vetch and rye can be planted up until the first frost. Most others need warmer weather to germinate. The general consensus is to plant fall cover crops about a month before your first expected harvest. However, checking your seed packet for temperature requirements will help you know when to plant.
How to Plant Cover Crops
Planting cover crops is about like seeding for grass. In fact, it’s exactly like seeding grass. You’re going to work the soil, seed it, lightly cover it or rake it, and keep it moist until they begin growing….
- Remove any existing vegetation and till up the soil about 3″ down.
- Sprinkle the seed evenly over the garden bed. Incorporate your kids in this step. Let them help you throw the seed down. This isn’t an exact science, after all….
- Lightly cover the seeds with soil or gently rake them to work them into the soil. You don’t want them to be very deep….
- Keep the garden moist until the seeds germinate.
Now, you let it grow! Over the winter the crops will either go dormant or die off completely. In the spring well before you’re ready to plant, cut them down with a lawn mower. Let them sit and dry out for a week or so and then till everything under. This will help release the nutrients so that they’re available to your first crops.
Growing cover crops can be a beneficial option for all backyard gardeners. They are a great way to keep weeds out, improve soil health, increase organic matter, and prevent soil erosion.
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