Having never been able to be somewhere where I could contemplate the next season’s garden, I had never heard of a cover crop until I started researching gardening this spring. I learned, at a minimum, that planting a cover crop is a darn good way to add vital organic matter and nutrients into your soil with a minimum of cost and labor. Always a plus.
There’s much more to learn about it, so I went off in search of the how-tos and whys and whats.
What and why is a cover crop?
The cover crop (also known as green manure) is generally a single crop planted between seasons over the entire area. There are summer and winter crops and perennials, but I’m going to concentrate on winter crops in my research for now. Once the winter garden is in, I’ll do some summer cover crop research.
Cover crops are used to
- fix nitrogen problems
- loosen soil
- prevent erosion
- prevent leaching of nutrients (which apparently is called a “Catch Crop”)
- suppress weeds
- deter pests and diseases
Fava beans, clovers, vetchs, Austrian peas and other legumes add nitrogen to the soil. It sounds like a nifty scientific process involving bacteria drawing nitrogen from the air and fixing it on the legumes roots, to be released into the soil when the plant dies. Cool. Rye, barley, wheat, buckwheat and other grass and cereal crops are more for the last 5 reasons list above. Many farmers and gardeners combine types to get the benefits of both.
Turn or till your area – hand turn it if at all possible so all your good wormies don’t get sliced up – and rake it smooth. Using a broadcast seeder (I got one from Lowest for $8, nifty little thing), spread seed over the area and rake it in to protect the seed from birds. You can plant in rows if you want, but everything I’m reading says broadcasting is fine….and faster.
Immediately after harvesting…you can even do it in sections if you have one area that will be dormant for sometime, while you wait for another crop to mature. Let the plant grow and start to flower, then depending on the kind of plant, cut it, till it, let it die if it’s sensitive to winter cold, or let it go til spring and kill it then. They must be killed before going to seed.
Based on the research from my references below, my plan will be to plant a legume with a grass and wait for it to start flowering, the mow it down, let it dry for a couple days, then till it under. After that, the garden will get our compost and the peat moss and sit for a couple weeks, then I’ll plant whatever I can at that time. For me, it looks like I might be able to get in broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, garlic, and lettuce, just based on Territorial Seed’s chart in their Fall/Winter catalog…may need to get some row covers, but that’s cool.
2008 Sunset Western Gardening Book