Cover Cropping Your Garden

By cover cropping this winter, you can provide richer soil for your garden, prevent weeds and help crops flourish.

| October/November 2002

When planted early enough to put on good growth before cold weather sets in, cover cropping prevents erosion, protects soil microbes, outcompetes cool-season weeds and builds soil fertility. The easiest cover crops grow quickly during cool fall days and are killed by winter temperatures, leaving a mulch to protect the soil. The vegetation’s roots will decompose and improve the soil structure. When it’s time for spring planting, all you need to do is rake back the mulch and you’re ready to go.

Cover Cropping With Oats and Barley

Inexpensive and easy to grow, oats are a standard fall cover crop in the northern and middle sections of North America. I have seen oats survive well into January in my northern-Iowa market garden. A quick-growing, non-spreading grass, oats will reliably die in Hardiness Zone 6 and colder.

Fall-sown barley grows even faster than oats, but it won’t grow as late into the winter. It usually will die in Zone 7 and colder regions, making barley a better choice for gardeners in portions of the southern United states or in the MidAtlantic states, where oats are likely to survive the winter.

Cover Cropping in the South

In southernmost regions, your garden’s rest period probably will coincide with the intense midsummer heat instead of winter. To reap the benefits of cover cropping during this period, try buckwheat, a hot-weather plant that grows quickly and attracts beneficial insects. Just be sure to turn tinder the succulent green growth before the buckwheat goes to seed. Southerners can grow oats or barley in vacant beds during the winter, but you’ll have to turn them under to kill them.

Cover Crop Tips

Cover crop seeds probably will be easier to find (and cheaper) at your local feed store, rather than at garden centers. Buying locally means you’re likely to find a regionally adapted variety. since that’s what area farmers will be planting. It’s best to buy seed-grade grains, rather than just feed-grade; feed-grade seeds may contain weed seeds in addition to the desired crop.

If you have time, prepare the soil as you would for garden crops. If you’re in a hurry, just rake the soil to loosen the surface and broadcast seeds onto the soil as soon as the weather begins to cool down in the fall. Here on the lowa-Minnesota border we do this from Sept. 1 to mid-October.

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