Cover crops are a great way to keep green in the garden during winter

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By: Jim Carpenter

NRCS South Dakota/Flickr

For me, fall is the perfect time to get a lot of outdoor chores accomplished. The cooler weather coupled with generally dry, sunny days make for a good environment to get some things knocked off the garden ‘to do’ list.

Also, with an inevitable winter approaching all too soon, it might be a bit of a ‘now or never’ issue of getting some of those projects completed. One of those yearly tasks for me is in planting a cover crop in my garden.

Planting a cover crop helps the garden in a number of ways. First, it will add organic matter to your soil. Organic matter in the soil is kind of like fiber in your diet — you can’t hardly have too much of it. The higher percentage of organic matter you have, the more ‘friability’ (loose, easily worked soil) and moisture holding capacity your soil will have. By planting a cover crop you will also encourage more beneficial soil organisms that are essential to a healthy garden.

Perhaps the most important benefit in planting a cover crop in your garden has to do with helping to promote mycorrhizial fungus. This is a very beneficial fungus that spreads from root to root beneath the soil. The mycorrhizial fungus helps to distribute nutrients and minerals from plant to plant and also helps to revitalize the soil.

It can only exist where there are roots actively growing. By having a cover crop in your garden during winter, there will actually be soil building going on even when most of the surrounding land area might be frozen and snow-covered.

Winter rye grass has generally been my main cover crop over the years. Planted a few weeks before the first frost is expected, it will quickly germinate and continue to grow in the milder days of late fall and winter. The rye grass will help control wind and rain erosion in your garden over the winter and also provides a micro-climate for those important soil organisms that live near the surface. Of course, the main benefit will be in the spring when you till the crop underneath.

By tilling under the grass in the spring, you will be adding minerals, nutrients and organic matter to help enrich the soil for your soon to be planted garden.

Recently, I have started using clover for some of my cover in the garden. Crimson Clover grows a beautiful red flower as the plants mature. Granted, you are going to incorporate this into the ground but for a short while, you might enjoy the looks of this crop. Clover also has the distinction of being a legume. Along with the bean family and others, legumes actually take unusable nitrogen and “fix” it into a source readily available for other plants to use. So in this case, your cover crop will add some all-important nitrogen to your soil which otherwise would not be available.

Many cover crops are a combination of useful seeds that will help your garden. My recent purchase of clover seed also had a type of radish seed mixed in. The radish seed in these mixes is generally a type that will permeate the soil to a depth of 10 to 20 inches. This can be very helpful if you have heavy clay soil or any compacted areas. I have also had turnip seed, winter peas and oats as part of a cover crop seed mix.

I like to use buckwheat seed in my garden during the growing season. This plant will not survive freezing temperatures but for areas of my garden which get harvested early in the summer, it will provide something better than weeds that also has a nice flower which attracts pollinators. It will reseed itself but is very easy to control. I like to plant it when I dig my early potatoes.

One more reason that a cover crop might be a positive for you is in the fact that it will grow a bit all winter long. This means that while the land is pretty much a frozen, barren landscape, you might still be able to have something green growing in your garden. Unless of course, we are all buried under three feet of snow!

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