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Using Cover Crops

By now, you’ve harvested all your fall vegetable and are starting to prep your garden for the winter. Another year gone and you’re waiting for spring to roll around again. Well, what if you could plant something in the fall that will help your garden’s nutrients. Ever thought of planting a cover crop in the fall?

Cover crops are great because they not only return nutrients to the soil, they can also help choke out weeds, break up soil compaction, prevent soil erosion and provide your garden with some great organic matter! Sounds like a win win to me!

Most farmers around the U.S. use cover crops, but why not the home gardener?

Here is a list of cover crops that might help out your garden:

Hairy Vetch: An annual, valuable soil-improvement crop and a vigorous legume that produces huge amounts of nitrogen-rich biomass for turning under. Vetch can be plant in spring through late summer, or if planted in late summer to early September it will over-winter and grow vigorously the following spring. Hairy Vetch is very hardy and will also sprout in spring if it is planted before the ground freezes in November. This crop demands fairly fertile soil and adequate rainfall as it is shallow rooted. Livestock caution: Seeds are poisonous.

Canola (Rape): A member of the Brassica family. Rapeseed is extremely winter hardy and drought-tolerant and thrives on all soils with little preparations. Plant in early spring or fall. This crop produces lots of humus as a plow-down and has a great biomass production which provides great nutrients for the soil. Recently, studies have shown Canola can help with pest management and can be toxic to soil borne pathogens, like nematodes, fungi and some weeds.

Crimson Clover: Plant in spring, summer or fall. This quick growing clover is the most versatile variety for weed suppressing green manure. It is an excellent source of nitrogen, a good soil builder, can help with preventing soil erosion and a good forage crop. With the clovers bright red color, the flower creates a great habitat for many types of bees. You can also use the blossoms for tea. Crimsons Clover needs well-draining soil and thrives best in cool, moist climates.

White Dutch clover:  A low growing perennial which forms a nice mat; perfect for pathways between beds. White Clover chokes out weeds and halts soil erosion. It also withstands shade and regular mowing. As a green manure/cover crop, it fixes nitrogen and since it’s a perennial, can be plowed in at any time. Plant in early spring.

Yellow Dutch clover: Biennial. Provides a tremendous amount of green manure and bee pasture. A vigorous grower with long tap roots to help break up compact soil. Yellow Dutch Clover can produce up to 125 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Sow in the spring or summer.

Austrian Winter Pea: Builds and increases organic matter and nitrogen content of soil. Plant in mid-August to early September to allow plants to germinate and harden off, or plant in early November or before the ground freezes. The seed will germinate in the spring and provide and early season plowdown. Plant alone or mix with Winter Rye at approximate 50% Rye to 50% Peas. Under good conditions it will provide 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre when plowed in at half flower.

Winter Rye: A very hardy perennial. Winter Rye is valued for its ability to break up hardpan soils with a profusion of roots and root hairs. It suppresses weeds and is adaptable to a wide range of soil and climate conditions. Can be planted from early spring until the ground freezes as a winter cover crop. Plant in the fall with Winter Peas for nitrogen, organic matter and weed suppression.

Alfalfa: Perennial. It establishes easily and grows very quickly. In gardens or row crop rotation, Alfalfa produces plenty of top growth and a complimentary amount of root growth to incorporate as green manure. It can produce up to 200 pounds per acre of nitrogen and three tons per acre of dry matter. If sown in early May and provided with adequate water, Alfalfa can be cut twice for a nitrogen rich mulch or protein rich hay and later plowed in as green manure. Perfect for rejuvenating worn out soils. Plants early spring; April-May.

Buckwheat: Annual. While it is especially valuable for its release of phosphorus, Buckwheat also contributes a significant amount of organic matter and break up to the soil, is very competitive with weeds and bees love it! Seed when ground is well warmed and after last spring frost; it has no frost tolerance. When June planted, in 35 days it is waist high, in bloom and ready to plow under. Good to follow with fall crops of Rye and Austrian Winter Pea. Just rake in some seed after harvesting Buckwheat it will keep out the weeds and keep your garden looking great. Beneficial Green Lacewing adults will feast on the nectar then deposit their “aphid lion” eggs on nearby garden crops.

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