Cover Crops… Your Garden Will Thank You!
By Dianne Venetta
As winter nears, it’s time to think about closing your garden. Granted, you can’t pull a shade over it, drawing the blind of winter until spring dawns once again, or pack it up and slide it under your bed. It involves a bit more thought and effort. I realize that you might be looking forward to a break after the long days of summer, the days spent weeding and feeding, the bounty of harvest, but I must tell you that your garden still needs your attention.
“What can my garden possibly need from me now?”
Protection, rejuvenation. Vacant beds of soil can become susceptible to weeds and bugs and it’s your job to prevent this catastrophe. Trust me when I say “catastrophe.” I’ve neglected my garden in the past and learned the hard way. Backaches hurt. Sweat stings. Bugs irritate. All of which could have been avoided with a little planning, namely cover crops.
The simple form of covering crops is fabric row covers. By stretching fabric covers over your garden soil they act as blankets to keep your beds warm and weed-free during the winter months. Come spring—when you’re chomping at the bit to get those seeds in the ground—it will be a breeze.
For you more ambitious types, there’s another kind of cover your winter beds will appreciate; actively growing “cover crops.” Basically, these are crops that once planted, serve to amend your garden’s soil. They vary depending on your region and can range from rye to legumes, Brassica to flowers, but most important—they serve a purpose. They will improve your garden soil by aerating it with their roots, then degrading into organic matter once turned back into the soil.
Say you’re an organic gardener and you want to employ a cover crop. You live in a temperate climate and can grow year-round. (Lucky, you.) Why not plant a crop of beans, or red clover? These legumes provide nitrogen for your soil, not to mention they’re a delicious source of protein! Once they’ve outlived their usefulness, simply till them back into the soil.
Another option is a heavy seeding of winter rye or alfalfa in your garden. It’s cold tolerant and thick enough to provide great weed prevention. (Gotta love that!) When spring sweeps in, simply till it back into the soil for maximum soil improvement. Both legumes and rye are considered “green manure,” because they improve soil fertility in the way of nitrogen, and nitrogen keeps everything green.
Some cover crops do more than improve soil and prevent weeds. Planting mustard has been shown to suppress fungal disease populations through the release of naturally occurring toxic chemicals during the degradation of glucosinolade compounds in their plant cell tissues. The Brassica species can also release chemical compounds that may be toxic to soil borne pathogens and pests, such as nematodes, fungi, and some weeds.
Speaking of nematodes, planting marigolds can prevent nematodes from reproducing. A good thing, because these microscopic beasts can kill your vegetable plants from the roots up! Very hard to fend off when you can’t see them.
Another nematode-eliminating method of cover crops comes in the form of plastic paper crop covers. I use this method during the summer months, because the power of the sun acts to “solarize my soil.” By covering your beds with plastic paper (red, black, or clear), you trap the heat, heat the soil, and eliminate the bugs beneath the surface. I like to think of this as my very own rendition of the “sun-bake” oven.
And if those aren’t reason enough to plant a cover crop, consider the benefits it will provide against soil erosion. A dense planting of any cover crop will physically slow down the speed at which rain makes contact with the soil surface, thereby lessening the amount of soil that can run off (and out of your garden!). Then of course there’s the added benefit of soil porosity created by the vast root network. I do love a multi-tasker.
So, whether you’re physically covering beds, or growing crops for cover—think of cover crops as a down payment on fertility come spring!
Meet the Author
Award-winning author D.S. Venetta lives in Central Florida with her husband and two children. It was volunteering in her children’s Montessori school garden that gave rise to her new series Wild Tales & Garden Thrills, stories bursting with the real-life experiences of young gardeners. Children see the world from a totally different perspective than adults and Venetta knows their adventures will surely inspire a new generation to get outside, and get digging.
When not crafting her next novel, D.S. Venetta hosts a garden blog, Bloominthyme.com, where she demonstrates just how easy and fun gardening can be! Additionally, Venetta has been featured for her gardening advice on various websites, including GalTime, EarthEats, eHow, IdealHomeGarden, Huffington Post, and the cookbook Earth Eats: Real Food Green Living. Passionate about organic gardening, her dream is to see a garden in every school, library, and community.
You can read Dianne's "The Gardening Life" column here at Pandora's Box Gazette on the 2nd Wednesday each month. Feel free to chat with Dianne and post your comments below. Do you have any gardening tips to share or questions to ask Dianne?