When people ask us about the key to our garden’s fertility – it doesn’t take long before the subject of using cover crops come up in the conversation!
Along with utilizing compost, the planting of our fall cover crops is one of the biggest reasons we have been able to build fertile soil in our vegetable garden.
So What Is A Cover Crop And What Does It Do?
A fall cover crop is a specific planting of seed such as annual rye (our favorite), clover or buckwheat that is planted in the early fall and protect the soil over the winter.
The crop germinates in the fall, then becomes dormant over the winter months. It comes back strong in the early Spring, and then is turned over and is incorporated back into the soil. It adds vitality, nutrients and organic matter before your garden is planted each season.
Cover crops keep the soil from being exposed to harsh winter rains, snow and winds that can whisk away the top layer of your soil. Losing that soil can leave your garden with far less productive soil next season.
They also help to cut down on the next seasons’ weeds by making it hard for blowing and drifting seeds to find a home. Soil covered in a rich, thick coat of a cover crop is the perfect blanket for keeping out seeds.
The roots of cover crops also are very beneficial – working to loosen the soil as they grow. Even more importantly, the root nodules of cover crops work to fix nitrogen levels in the soil. This makes that nitrogen readily available for next year’s crops to soak up.
If you have ever had a garden in the same spot that grew well for a few years and then slowly started producing less – the loss of key elements like nitrogen and others are most likely the culprit. Cover crops can keep the soil recharged for growth. They are also easy to plant and extremely inexpensive! We spend well under $20 to plant our entire garden in annual rye each fall.
How To Plant Your Cover Crop…
Begin by gently raking the soil surface. There is no need to disturb the soil with heavy digging or tilling – a simple raking of the top 1/8″ of soil will allow enough space for the cover crop to germinate. Next – sow a generous amount of seed on your garden or raised bed soil. Think of it much like you would if you were sowing grass seed. We use about a pound of seed for each of our 18″ wide x 20′ long raised rows.
Next – use the garden rake again to stir the seed into the soil lightly. Don’t worry about the seed being completely covered by the soil. Slight raking is more than enough to get them set in to germinate. All that’s left is to sit back and wait for germination. Watering the seed is needed only during an extremely dry season. Most seed will germinate on its own in 7 to 14 days – and protect your garden soil all winter long! You can check out our video tutorial at the end of the post as well.
Happy Gardening! – Jim and Mary. If you would like to receive our Sunday Updates each week – be sure to sign up to follow the blog via email in the right hand column, “like” us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.