Get your cover crops here! Yes, it’s fall, and that means that it’s just about time to put your garden to bed. If you’re a parent, you know that putting the kids to bed involves some stories, possibly a song, tucking them in, and occasionally some frustration. Thankfully, garden beds are much easier. They do have a bedtime, however, and that bedtime is approaching.
What is a Cover Crop?
Cover crops are plants that you grow during the winter months. They have a number of purposes. Some of them actually are crops that you can use, like fava beans. Most of them have a different purpose, though. They’re planted in your garden to help protect and enrich your soil during the winter months.
If you’re growing annual vegetables, now is the time for harvest. Your squashes might be growing vigorously, the tomatoes waning, and the fall carrots coming out of the ground. Gradually, as the season moves on, more and more of the summer and fall vegetables come out of your garden. If you’re not growing perennials or winter vegetables, once those summer and fall crops come out this can leave your soil bare.
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Why Cover Crops are Good for Your Garden
Bare soil is a sad sight in the winter months. It’s exposed to the cold and possibly to the damp, depending on where you’re located. Harsh winter weather can leach nutrients from your soil. If you’re in more moderate climates, leaving your soil bare is an invitation to weeds and to people and animals who will walk across it, compacting your soil and making it harder for air and water to move into it. So what’s a gardener to do? The cure is simple: plant a placeholder crop that will shield your soil from the rain and add nutrients to it.
Types of Cover Crops
There are many kinds of cover crops. Clovers are popular because they’re relatively low, they attract bees in the spring, and they add nitrogen to the soil. Fava beans are also nitrogen-fixers, and they have the added bonus of potentially providing an early spring crop. Fall rye is an easy, grass-like crop to scatter across the soil. Winter peas are more sprawling, but they make great compost come spring. They also fix nitrogen into the soil. If you need to break up some new soil, you can even try planting a big-rooted crop like daikon radishes!
Where to Buy Cover Crop Seed
Cover crop seeds are usually sold in bulk packages and are not overly expensive. When you take out your summer or fall garden, sow them liberally according to the directions on the package, and make sure that they’re covered with a light layer of soil, especially if you live in a wet or windy area. Depending on your local climate, these seeds will grow over the next month or so, and then they’ll often pause over the winter. In the spring, they’ll continue growing until it’s time to sow your first crop. When it’s that time, turn them over into the soil and the soil will get a spring infusion of nutrients and fiber.
Do you plant cover crops in your garden? Why or why not?