I didn’t do so well at planting a winter vegetable garden this year (I am terrible at planning for winter in the height of summer, which is, unfortunately, when you need to do your planting for winter harvesting). Other than some quick-growing salad greens that I managed to sneak in at the beginning of September, the holes left by my tomatoes, beets, kale and herbs might have gone unfilled all winter, if it weren’t for cover crops.
A cover crop, also known as green manure or living mulch, does double – make that triple – duty in the winter garden.
First, it protects your soil from harsh winter weather, preventing erosion, compaction and nutrient leaching. It also smothers weeds.
Second, it fixes nitrogen in the soil. There’s a whole scientific explanation behind the “fixing” of nitrogen, but all you really need to know is that cover crops, many of which are legumes, add nitrogen back into your soil, prepping it for spring planting. It’s a great service to soil that has been depleted by hungry feeders like tomatoes.
Finally, cover crops produce armloads of organic matter, improving soil structure when the crop is dug under in the spring. If you prefer not to till your soil, the cut greens make a great boost for the compost pile. Yay!
So what do you do in the spring? Watch for flowers: they’re the indicator that it’s time to either dig under your crop or cut it down, leaving the roots in the ground and using the greens for your compost. If you dig under your crop, let the soil rest for three weeks before planting. Enjoy improved soil fertility and structure.
Popular winter cover crops include red clover, hairy vetch, fall rye, fava bean, alfalfa and Austrian winter pea.
I like using a blend of fall rye and crimson clover.
Fall rye is super winter hardy cereal crop that prevents soil erosion and smothers weeds. Turned under in spring, it decomposes and improves soil. According to West Coast Seeds, fall rye gives off a chemical that inhibits the germination of weed seeds. Planted twice in a row, it can choke out several tough weed species for good.
Crimson clover builds nitrogen in the soil and tills under easily. Pollinators – especially bees – love it. Plant before early October.
Chuck Bartok says
Thanks for the article. We are fortunate to Crop year round in Northern California. We do experience Frost, but Oh well…
When kids were home we truck farmed 20 acre year round. But always had Cover crops, usually peas in rotation on some plots, especially “Next Springs” Corn patch.
We put out sign “pick your own peas 10 cents a pound”.
They enjoyed it and we got back Seed costs PLUS
Unfortunately I haven’t planted anything for winter at all, but if I were working with an in-ground garden, then I would certainly go the way of green manures at the very least.
It is already bloody cold in my neck of the woods (minus 4 Celsius as I type this!!) but some of the plants are still kicking. I cut back the catnip a couple of weeks ago and it is still flowering. Weird!
Anyhoo, do you know anything about curly dock being used as a green manure? A nice girl donated a whole bunch of seeds for the community garden we are starting, and suggested it for a green manure. I know it is supposed to be good in compost, but have yet to see anything on it in the green manure department.
Andrea Bellamy says
Laurel – Minus 4? Yikes! I hadn’t heard of curly dock being used as a green manure, but some quick googling turned up a bunch of stuff, mostly relating to using cover crops to force out weeds such as curly dock. Although it does have edible value if cooked, I don’t know that I’d plant it on purpose!
Anyone out there have experience with this?
Ya, pretty much what I came up with. Well, the property already has plenty of happy weeds on it, so I suppose I could add more to the Devil’s Acre ;)
Thanks for addressing this topic. I’m planning my first cover crop this year–red clover, based on a friend’s recommendation. Bought the seeds the other day and have to plant them before the ground freezes. Your suggestions for the spring are helpful.
I planted crimson clover in my vegetable beds a couple of weeks ago and it germinated in just a few day…then my chickens ate it! So I’m planning on replanting tomorrow. And fortifying my fence!
Andrea Bellamy says
Laurel – good luck!
Sally – this is my first time using cover crops too. I’m using a mix of legumes and clover. I’m excited to see how it works out in the spring.
Willi – Oh my! I never thought about chickens being a potential crop disturber. Good luck with that fence!
I also did my first crop of berseem and crimson clover a couple weeks ago. I’m very excited about how it looks so far…can’t wait for the blooms. It will probably be a little bit sad to turn it under.