Did you know over-wintering cover crops can help your garden produce even more in the Spring? Without a ton of work!
As Winter’s knocking on our doors, we’re decorating for Fall and Christmas, putting up the last of our canned goods, and putting our gardens to bed.
However, Winter doesn’t have to be a time of complete rest for your garden.
If you find yourself needing to improve the quality of your soil, or prevent water run-off and erosion, planting a winter cover-crop can give you a head start without having to babysit it in the cold.
Why Plant a Winter Cover Crop
Most cover cropping accomplishes one of two things: creating space in the soil by the way of roots so that you don’t have to aerate or till, or feeding nutrients back into the soil.
However, cover crops can do a lot more than just that. Cover cropping:
- Prevents erosion. The root structure of cover crops will knit the soil together to prevent the melting snows or cold winter downpours from washing your fertile soil away.
- The top growth can be tilled under in the Spring, providing excellent compost and plant fiber
- Suppresses weed growth
- Return nutrients to the soil. Many cover crops release sugars, and microbes to the soil (often as far as 6 feet down!) that will feed next year’s crop.
We will often do a nitrogen fixing or aerating cover crop. In the early Spring, before we even begin working the soil, we’ll chop it off at the ground and leave the plant material on the surface to act as a mulch. This is called chop-and-drop.
The roots of the cover crop will naturally die without any food from photosynthesis, but this decomposing plant matter also acts like a green compost. You can feed your soil without having to pull it up, throw it in the compost bin, turn in, and then place it back into the garden.
- annual ryegrass
- winter rye
- winter wheat
- white clover – beneficial for honey bees
- sweet clover
- crimson clover
- hairy vetch
- field peas
An added bonus is that many of these plants are also edible for humans and livestock or can even be harvested for their medicinal properties.
Grow some winter wheat and after it’s finished it’s first job of protecting your garden bed, it can be given a second one in your pantry!
Grow some field peas and harvest them for your chickens, or some white clover and dry it for a medicinal clover tea afterwards. For more information on how to use clover medicinally, check out Herbal Academy’s blog post.
When to Plant cover crops
If you have fields that will remain fallow for the growing season, clovers, fescue, buckwheat are good choices, as they’ll grow all summer, but be killed off by the frost.
For covering your soil later in the year, barley, ryegrass, oats and winter wheat are your only options, as they’ll withstand the frost.
Before tilling your cover-crop into the soil, mow it down and let it decompose for a few weeks, as decomposition within the soil can tie up nitrogen.
An added bonus of doing this, is that the cut clippings will still act as a mulch and help your soil retain water and prevent runoff.