Total transparency here: by this time in the season, I have stopped weeding and my garden is a hot mess. For real. I've canned all the sauces, veggies, condiments, relish and jam that I plan to. There are still some greens, celery and sweet potatoes hanging around, but that's really all that's worthwhile. I have been thinking about pulling the tomato and pepper beds, amending the soil a little and planting some lettuce and cabbage for a small, early winter harvest. That will only take care of about 1/3 of my beds and the rest need to be cleaned up and put to bed until springtime. For the first time ever, I've decided to utilize cover crops.
Where I live, I was made aware of a program through my county's Soil & Water Conservation Office (yes, that's a thing) which offers free seeds to residents. I reached out to Andrew Fritz, a local Urban Agriculture Conservationist for more information.
Here's what he had to say:
We [are offering] four cover crops - Crimson Clover, Hairy Vetch, Cereal Rye, and Oats...They come in small packs that are good to cover 100 square feet. I have also included notes below that may address some questions:
Crimson Clover's biggest benefit is that it adds nitrogen to the soil and is considered a soil builder. If you interseed, or overseed, by broadcasting the seeds between 9/15 and 9/30, the crimson clover will flower earlier in the spring when is the time you would cut it down and leave it as mulch. The Crimson Clover mulch is excellent because it adds to the soil, releases nitrogen slowly, helps to suppress weeds, and keeps moisture in the soil. Although, like all plants, it will decompose - which is actually a good thing.
The biggest benefit to oats is that it grows quickly and is a weed fighter. Additionally, it adds some organic matter and loosen topsoil. Gardeners find this oats convenient because it winter-kills. This means that the gardener does not have to kill, or terminate, the plant in the spring.
The biggest benefits that Hairy Vetch offers is that it can choke out weeds, supplies nitrogen to the soil, and attract beneficial insects as it is flowering in the spring. It is just like Crimson Clover in that it will survive the winter. Getting this plant started earlier is better.
Cereal Rye, though one of the more difficult plants, offers the most benefits to soil improvement - especially for tough clay soils. Rye has deep roots that break up compaction and is the best at suppressing weeds, and creates a lot of organic matter. It also has long lasting residue that can act as straw to suppress weeds. With rye, the stalks will be difficult to work around but this won't stop you from seeding or putting in vegetable starts. In addition, after terminating the rye (anytime from 12" to flower), you must wait 10 days before planting as the chemical it releases to suppress weeds needs to lose its strength.
GENERAL RULES AND GUIDELINES
- It is ideal to plant cover crops between 9/15 and 9/30. Though, they can be planted later. If this is the case, increase the seeding rate.
- If your garden is still active, remove all weeds, and seed the cover crop between your plants to give them a good start. Once root growth is established, you can walk on them gently to continue working in the garden.
- One packet of seeds is good for 100 square feet. If you have a 50' sq. garden, cut the seed amount in half.
- Terminate cover crops that do not winter-kill as they are flowering just prior to seeding. This is the most effective way of terminating the plant successfully.
- After broadcasting the seed, rake or water in gently to ensure good soil to seed contact for improved germination.
- Cover crops can be mixed together to achieve several benefits. Consult with the Urban Agriculture Conservationist to learn more.
I am planning to try the Cereal Rye as that seems to be the best fit for my garden. I'm so excited to see if cover crops are all they're cracked up to be. Wish me luck!
Elizabeth Morse cooks professionally, is an Advanced Master Gardener and lover of all things local.