This time of year, many of us are putting our garden beds to rest for the season. Many farmers and gardeners use cover crops in their garden when they are not in use. Cover crops are crops not intended for harvest, but planted to keep weeds from growing, to prevent nutrients from washing out of their garden, and to add organic matter back into the soil in the spring.
There are many kinds of cover crops, but here are a few that are good for planting in the fall:
Peas and oats – Peas and oats are a great crop for small garden beds. The oats help reduce weed pressure and soil erosion, and the peas add nitrogen to the soil. Peas and oats will winterkill, which means they will die in the winter and will be ready to work into the soil in the spring.
Buckwheat – Buckwheat is a grain that grows extremely fast, germinating in just 3-5 days. Buckwheat will also winterkill. Buckwheat is not a nitrogen fixer, but it does add some organic matter.
Winter Rye – Winter Rye is a favorite for end of season cover cropping, because it does not winterkill. It will die back in the winter, but come back up in the spring. This is great for keeping spring weeds away. Rye, however, is a bit tougher to kill. You’ll want to make sure to cut it back before it goes to seed, so it doesn’t seed itself in your garden and become a weed.
Tillage Radish – Tillage Radish is a cheap radish seed that is often mixed in with other cover crops. It is an edible radish, so you can harvest it, but as a cover crop it is great for loosening up compacted soil and aerating it.
These are only some of the options when it comes to cover cropping. When choosing a cover crop, you want to think about what your garden needs, and choose the one that will help you achieve that. You can also mix different cover crops, which many people do – that will allow you to get the benefit of many different crops.
When it is time to plant again in the spring, if your cover crop has died, you can simply work the dead plant material back into your soil. If it has not died, you’ll want to cut it back with a lawn mower, weed whacker, or scissors, let the plant material breakdown, and then work it into your soil.
Cover cropping is great practice for growers, and a huge help in keeping soil healthy. If you are not cover cropping, consider mulching your bed with something like leaf mulch!