Even though we hate to admit it, the bounty of summer gardens is crawling to a close. If you haven’t started them already, your outdoor garden is about to go out with a bang with butternut squash, pumpkins and cool-loving winter greens. For gardeners that have a cold-frame set up, your growing season is extended. But for the rest of us, it’s time to start thinking about cover crops.
After a summer of gardening to your heart’s content, you can just imagine how many nutrients were used up for those perfectly ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and zucchini. You might find that produce doesn’t grow quite as well year after year, especially if you’re not rotating your crops. So what do you do? Correct your soil with the help of cover crops–an easy, no-frills, natural way to return nutrients to your garden while keeping weeds at bay.
The Great Thing About Cover Crops
Used in large scale farming, cover crops take over during your garden’s resting period. Instead of sitting dormant during the cold months, gardeners who plant cover crops take part in rejuvenating their soils nutrients, with an almost hands-off approach. Cover crops not only add nutrients back in, but they also reduce weeds and prevent soil erosion.
All you have to do is work up the soil with a garden rake, broadcast the seed, then rake it in (most of them 4 weeks before overnight frosts are expected). If you have a large garden patch, you may want to mow them to make sure they don’t get completely out of hand, but it’s not necessary. First mow the crop, once the leaves and stems dry down, dig them into the soil and then plant 2 -3 weeks later. Just remember to kill them before they set seed in the spring.
Depending on your garden’s needs, here are seven cover crops that will work hard so you don’t have to:
Clover may be the easiest cover crop to plant with the biggest bang for your buck. Offering both nitrogen and biomass that will benefit your garden soil, red clover can be seeded in between your vegetables anytime from spring to early autumn.
Field Peas/Oats combine the hardworking legume that fixes nitrogen with oats that are full of organic matter. It’s the ideal combination to plant over the winter.
Buckwheat, aka the “smother crop,” is the answer for gardeners who’ve had enough with weeds. A non-legume crop, buckwheat does best when planted between late May and August. After 40 days, incorporate it into your soil and you’ve got yourself dirt that’s been invigorated thanks to a lower weed count.
Hairy Vetch is often used in vegetable gardens thanks to its nitrogen-fixing ability. Known for being an excellent choice for both cold climates and in droughts, you can plant hairy vetch anytime from late summer to early fall. Just till in the spring or mow it down and plant your vegetables in this nutrient soaked mulch.
Winter Rye is a common winter cover crop thanks to its resilient attitude. Once all of your vegetables have been harvested, sow some winter rye in. Don’t be shocked when it seems to be getting a little out of hand as it will chill out as the weather dips and resume growing into the spring. Once you’re ready to plant, just add it into your soil.
Sorghum-Sudangrass is a hybrid grass that grows without much help, while generating large amounts of organic matter. Plant it 7 weeks before the first frost so that you don’t have to worry about its eventual 12-foot height.
Annual Rye Grass is probably one of the most popular cover crops; thanks to its quick germinating ability, its effectiveness at controlling weeds and its large amount of available nutrients. Seed into your vegetables now or wait until winter. When spring arrives, turn it into the soil so your garden can benefit from all of the trapped nutrients.
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