It seems like I was just fretting about planting the garden, and now it is frenzy of harvesting and preserving. But in the back of my mind on these cool nights, is that fall isn’t too far off and winter will be here before I know it.
I plant a variety of cover crops, and I plant them in succession too, just to fit them in with existing crops.
Cover crops can serve many purposes. They help build organic matter, hold the soil during winter rains, leave residues that can choke out problem weeds, and fix nitrogen in the soil.
The downside of cover crops in the home garden is that they can be hard to incorporate in the soil the next year when you are itching to get the garden in! There should be at least 3 to 4 weeks after tilling the cover crop in before most vegetable seeds and plants are planted just to make sure the cover crop has properly broken down and it’s allelopathic properties are no longer present.
Another downside I have discovered the hard way, is that most cover crops become a reliable food source for deer and elk in the winter, and provide cover for voles that like to eat my roots crops. However, if you have those critters under control – don’t let my mis-management sway you from using a cover crop. Each gardener has to do the pro and con list to find out what works the best for them in their conditions.
The most popular cover crop is annual or cereal rye. It is cold hardy and while it may remain short and dormant during the coldest of weather, once the weather breaks it will take off like gangbusters. Often rye is planted in conjunction with Hairy Vetch or Austrian Peas which are both cold hardy legumes that will fix nitrogen.
Winter killed cover crops such as Oats or Field Peas work well in home gardens because they make some growth in the fall, and then are killed by frost, leaving a mulch behind that will hold the soil through the winter, but will be easy to incorporate in the spring in a home garden setting. Sudan grass or Sudex is also useful and winter-kills reliably even here in our mild Pacific Northwest winters. However, it can be toxic to livestock if grazed when it is frosted, for that reason I don’t use it. But, if you don’t have livestock – go for it. Sudan really can break up hardpan and suppress weeds.
All in all I would say cover cropping is a necessary skill to add to your gardening repertoire. What cover crops work well in your area?