Cover Crops

Cover Crops

Jeremy Warren

It's the time of year for fall veggie garden maintenance.  While most of your neighbors will probably grow a few things like lettuce or broccoli, most gardens are pretty barren places in the fall and winter. It doesn't have to be that way in your garden this year. It is entirely possible-and easy-to have a full and attractive garden all winter while improving your soil for next spring.  

In nature, the ground never sits bare very long, even in winter. Bare ground exposed to the winter elements undergoes some negative changes. First, any leftover nutrients from your summer garden will be subject to leaching with the coming rain and snow. This means you'll have to supplement with more in the spring.  Second, the soil becomes a very inhospitable place for the earth worms and beneficial microbes that we should be encouraging in our gardens. Third, the topsoil that all gardeners try to build is subject to erosion, literally washing away with fall and spring rains and winter snows.

So, how do we prevent these unwelcome changes, while maintaining a productive and attractive space? The same way farmers for years improved their soil: with cover crops. Cover crops can be almost any tender annual that can be grown to shade out weeds, capture and add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil, and protect the soil life.

Cover crops can be grown for warm seasons or cool seasons. For the purposes of this article, we will just cover a selection of cool season cover crops. First would be the covers that serve both as food and as soil improvers. These include kale, collards, turnip greens, fava beans and daikon radish. The large leafed greens protect the soil from the elements while capturing the nutrients in your garden soil to be returned as they are added back to the soil. They also provide nutritious food for your family. Fava beans are a legume, so they add the much needed nitrogen to the soil. Daikon radish is perfect for breaking up our hard clay and subsoils, allowing better root penetration from your veggies this coming spring.  

Crimson clover is an attractive cover crop

The second list includes my favorites, the crops that do the most for improving the soil while providing the mulch I will need in the spring. These include oats, rye, winter wheat and clover. The grasses are not grown for their grains. They are grown for their amazing abilities to grow quickly enough to choke out any weeds that may want to sprout this winter and to add huge amounts of organic matter to the soil. They also have very vigorous root systems that help break up the soil much deeper than you can dig. If handled properly, these can actually be your mulch in the spring.  Clover makes a perennial ground cover that adds tons of nitrogen to the soil, attracts pollinators and out-competes weeds.   

I almost forgot to mention how many comments I get on how pretty that "grass" or those "flowers" are in my garden when everyone else's garden is a wasteland. It has thrilled me to see New Garden start carrying cover crop seeds. In my opinion, it is one of the best things you will ever do for the health of your garden. There simply is not enough space to cover all of the applications for cover crops, but there is a lot of information out there and we are learning more about the benefits and applications every day. 

(Note: In-store availability of specific cover crop seeds mentioned will vary.)

Further Reading:
Cover Crops for Small Scale Gardens 

Cover Crop Basics

Use Cover Crops to Improve Soil 

About the author:

Currently the Nursery Manager at New Garden Gazebo, Jeremy was raised on a farm and started gardening at 14. He has degrees in Greenhouse Operations, Nursery Operations, and Greenhouse and Nursery Management. He has taught courses on plant production and sustainable farming at Rockingham Community College.