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Beginners Guide To Gardening: Cover Crops

The growing season is winding down and the days are growing shorter. Just when you thought your work was over, your garden still needs your attention.

row cover on a large farm

Photo: n_yoder (Flickr)

Your garden may not be this large, but laying down row cover before the cold weather hits is beneficial to the soil on any farm, no matter its size.

Keeping Your Garden Busy

The growing season is winding down and the days are growing shorter, the winds colder. Just when you thought your work was over, your garden still needs your attention.

But it will be too cold to grow anything. What can the garden possibly need now (other than “blankets” to keep it warm and snuggly)?

Your garden wants to keep busy and one of the best things it can do is amend its soil. Amend means “to modify” and there is more than one way to accomplish this task.

Two Types Of Covers

Simple row covers will act as blankets to keep your beds warm and weed free during the winter months so that come spring, when you’re chomping at the bit to get those vegetables in the ground, it will be much easier to plant your new crop of seeds.

But there’s another kind of cover your winter beds will appreciate: crop covers. These will vary depending on your region and can range from rye to legumes, brassicas to flowers. Most importantly, they all have a purpose.

More Nitrogen, Fewer Weeds

Say you’re an organic gardener (of course you are!) and you want to enrich your soil with organic matter. You live in a temperate climate and can grow year round. Why not plant a crop of beans? They’re an excellent choice because not only do they like it warm, their wide leaves will shade the ground for extra weed prevention and their roots will put nitrogen into your soil. Not to mention they’re a delicious source of protein!

Rye Plant With Bug

Photo: Daniel Kulinski (Flickr)

Rye is considered “green manure” because it improves soil fertility by infusing it with nitrogen, and nitrogen keeps everything green!

But let’s say you live up north and beans won’t survive the long harsh winter. Your garden would be best served by a heavy seeding of rye. Not only will it improve your soil, but it is cold tolerant and thick enough to provide great weed prevention. Come spring, simply till it back into the soil after it flowers for maximum soil improvement.

Both beans and rye are considered “green manure” because they improve soil fertility by infusing it with nitrogen, and nitrogen keeps everything green!

Pest Prevention

Some cover crops can do more than improve soil and prevent weeds.

Planting mustard has been shown to suppress fungal disease populations through the release of naturally occurring toxic chemicals during the degradation of glucosinolade compounds in their plant cell tissues.

The Brassica species can also release chemical compounds that may be toxic to soil-borne pathogens and pests such as nematodes, fungi and some weeds.

Broccoli Plant

Photo: Dan Meineck (Flickr)

Brassica varieties include cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi and broccoli (shown here).

Speaking of nematodes, planting marigolds can prevent nematodes from reproducing — a good thing, because these microscopic beasts can kill your vegetable plants from the roots up, and they are very hard to fend off when you can’t see them.

Another nematode-eliminating method of cover crops comes in the form of paper crop covers, known as “solarizing your soil.” By covering your beds with plastic paper (red, black or clear), you can eliminate the bugs beneath the ground. I like to think of this as my very own rendition of the sun-baked oven where you trap the heat, heat the soil, fry the varmints and prepare for planting pest-free!

Making The Soil Happy

If that isn’t enough reason to plant a cover crop, consider the benefits it will provide against soil erosion. A dense planting of any cover crop will physically slow down the speed at which rain makes contact with the soil surface, thereby lessening the amount of soil that can runoff (and out of) your garden.

Then of course there’s the added benefit of soil porosity created by the vast root network. I do love a multi-tasker.

So whether you’re covering crops with paper or growing crops for cover, think of cover crops as a down payment on fertility come spring!

Dianne Venetta

Dianne is an author, entrepreneur, and mother. She writes the blog BloominThyme and volunteers as garden coordinator for her children's school garden. At the end of the day, if she can inspire someone to stop and smell the roses (or rosemary), kiss their child and husband goodnight, be kind to a neighbor and Mother Earth, then she's done all right.

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  • Cottagegardendecor

    Good information – kinda puts a different spin on putting the garden to bed!  Thanks for sharing

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