So you've decided that you won't be planting a fall/winter garden or at least a portion of your garden will not be used this fall. Don't just let it sit, plant a cover crop and give back to the soil!
Cover crops, also called "Green Manure" are a great option for your garden during the fall winter months. Of course there is the benefit of nourishing your soil, replacing vital nitrogen and other nutrients back into your soil that all of the plants took out this year, but there are other advantages that a low on labor and resources, too.Cover crops also help protect the soil from erosion, and keep weeds from establishing themselves. Those two things are great by themselves! And if you are like us and have free range poultry there are cover crops that are good for them too!
Here's where the low labor part comes in. Once you have removed all of your summer plants go ahead and rake up the top layer, making sure you have removed any roots that might have been left behind and spread your seeds by hand or with a spreader. Go back over the plot with the rake and cover with an at least two inches of soil, this will help protect your seeds from the migratory birds and other locals looking for a quick meal. Mist a bit with water if it's been dry and that's it. The latest you want to start most seeds would be about a month out from your first frost, this will ensure that the seeds will get a chance to have a good start before the cold weather sets in. Let it grow until late winter or early spring then depending on what you have planted it can either be mowed and then tilled into the soil or just directly tilled in depending on the length of the stalks. Sounds easy right?
So what are your options for cover crops? Here are a few ideas for you. each garden has it's own needs and weather so check these out or contact your local, garden centers, seed catalogues or the ag office in your area.
There are three main types of crops and each one has a different job.
Legumes: This is your pea and clover category. They will reintroduce nitrogen into your soil. Some varieties will bloom in early spring and the blooms are welcomed by bees venturing out early in the season. Look for Crimson or White Clover, Fava Beans (I keep thinking we should get some just so we can insert the line from Hannibal into conversations), Hairy Vetch and Bell Beans.
Grasses: This is your grain Category, They can be most helpful if you have poor hard soils, since their root systems help break up even clay. They are very cold tolerant and stand up well in northern climates as an overwinter crop. The main benefit from them comes from the crop being tilled back into the soil, which composts easily, returning nutrients back into the soil. Rye, Alfalfa, and Oats are all good options for a cover crop.
Brassicas: This is your "other" category, it includes buckwheat, which isn't wheat at all, Phacelia, which is a type of succulent and oilseed radish. These often have large taproots and can help to increase drainage. Buckwheat has a large broadleaf and is good to help choke out other weeds and is used to help put phosphorus back into the soil.
Don't think you have to stick to one kind of cover crops. Lots of places carry nice selections of premixed seeds. We'll be using a mix of Rye, Red Clover and maybe Alfalfa in our on used sections this year. Not only will we be helping the soil but we'll give the chickens a place to forage, bring in helpful bugs and in the spring we'll have blooms for the bees.
I have included a list of sites where you can buy seeds, if you don't have a good selection or option in your area. I am including companies that we use but only because we have had good luck with their seeds and we believe in what they do. They have no idea that I recommending them, nor do I get anything in return, except for knowing that maybe we helped someones garden out this winter!
High Mowing Seeds Nice variety and free shipping
Grow Organic Lots of options and they even have options to help you find the right seeds for your area and problems, from attracting the right bugs to size of plants.
Seven Springs Good option if you are working with a large area.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Great Selection of unique options including lots of varieties of Sorghum
It's strange to be thinking about fall and winter crops now, especially today when it's so hot outside but planning ahead is often the best thing you can do for your gardens! So here's hoping you'll have a great weekend for harvesting and digging in the dirt for a bit longer..
Check back in with us for detailed information about compost hows and whys and more information on growing your own great garden!