As winter nears, and days grow shorter, it’s time to think about closing your garden. With nothing growing, you might be looking forward to the break after the long days of summer, the bounty of harvest. Just when you thought your work was over. The growing season is winding down, the days are growing shorter, winds colder, yet your garden still needs your attention.
Of course, it’s not like you can pack it up and slide it under your bed. You can’t pull a shade over it, drawing the blind of winter until spring dawns once again.
“What can my garden possibly need from me now?”
Protection, rejuvenation. Vacant beds of soil can become susceptible to weeds and bugs. One way to avoid these problems is to employ cover crops. For starters, you can place fabric row covers over your garden soil that will act as blankets to keep your beds warm and weed-free during the winter months. Come spring—when you’re chomping at the bit to get those seeds in the ground—it will be much easier.
But there’s another kind of cover your winter beds will appreciate; actively growing “cover crops.” Basically, these are crops that once planted, serve to amend your garden’s soil. They will vary depending on your region and can range from rye to legumes, Brassica to flowers, but most important—they serve a purpose. They will improve your garden soil.
Say you’re an organic gardener and you want to enrich your soil with organic matter. You live in a temperate climate and can grow year-round. (Lucky, you.) Why not plant a crop of beans, or red clover? These legumes provide nitrogen for your soil. Not to mention they’re a delicious source of protein! Once they’ve outlived their usefulness, simply till them back into the soil.
Another option is a heavy seeding of winter rye or alfalfa in your garden. Not only will it improve your soil, but it’s cold tolerant and thick enough to provide great weed prevention. Gotta love that! When spring sweeps in, simply till it back into the soil for maximum soil improvement. Both legumes and rye are considered “green manure,” because they improve soil fertility in the way of nitrogen, and nitrogen keeps everything green!
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.
And 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! Very hard to fend off when you can’t see them.
Another nematode-eliminating method of cover crops comes in the form of plastic paper crop covers. I use this method during the summer months, because you’re using the power of the sun to “solarize your soil.” By covering your beds with plastic paper (red, black, or clear), you trap the heat, heat the soil, and eliminate the bugs beneath the surface. I like to think of this as my very own rendition of the “sun-bake” oven.
And 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 run off (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 physically covering beds, or growing crops for cover—think of cover crops as a down payment on fertility come spring!