Just when you thought your work was over, the growing season is winding down, the days are growing shorter, the winds colder but 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 ways it can do so is by amending its soil. Amend means “to modify” and there are more ways than one to accomplish this task!
Simple row covers will keep your beds warm and weed free during the winter months so that come spring—when you’re rip-roaring and ready to get those vegetables in the ground—it will be much easier to plant that new crop of seeds.
But there’s another kind of cover your winter beds will appreciate, known as crop covers. These will vary depending on your region and can range from rye to legumes, brassicas to flowers but most important—they all have a purpose. 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? Soybeans work wonders, but any variety will do because not only do beans 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 delectable source of protein!
But let’s say you live up north and beans won’t survive the long harsh winter. You should try a heavy seeding of rye in your garden. Not only will it improve your soil, but it's cold tolerant and thick enough to provide great weed prevention. Alfalfa is another wonderful choice, but tempting. Personally, I’d find it hard to resist clipping when making my salads, which means there’d be none left to till back into the soil come spring!
Decisions, decisions, but either way, all of the above are good candidates. They improve soil fertility in the way of nitrogen and nitrogen keeps everything green—which is why they’re considered “green manure.” (Bring on the alfalfa! I think I just lost my appetite.)
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, why not plant a row of marigolds? They can prevent nematodes from reproducing—a good thing, because these microscopic beasts can kill your vegetable plants from the roots up! Very hard to detect until it’s too late.
Another nematode-removal method comes in the form of paper crop covers. This is what’s known as “solarizing your soil.” By covering your beds with plastic paper you can eliminate the pests beneath the ground. I like to think of this as my very own sun-baked oven where you trap the heat, heat the soil, fry the varmints and prepare for planting—totally bug-free!
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 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!