Garden Friday – Winter Cover Crops

In the rainy Pacific Northwest, the surest way to deplete your soil is to leave it bare during the winter.  The forest naturally provides a canopy and cover of dead leaves to slow down the rain washing away vitamins and minerals; without it, you are asking for junky soil full of lots of weeds if nothing is done.

Luckily, we can grow some veggies year around.  But, if you don’t put in a winter garden, there are basically 2 options.

The first is to cover your beds with straw and leaves to slow down the runoff.

The second is to plant cover crops that can withstand the winter.  Most winter cover crops need to be planted 4 weeks before the first hard frost to have time to establish themselves.  If this is done, they will grow until the hard frosts and begin growing again in early spring.  The exception is cereal rye which can be planted right up to a frost.  So even though I just planted the last of mine this week, you still have time along the Wasatch front.

What did I plant?  Well, legumes are popular choices because they both add organic matter AND ‘fix’ their own nitrogen from the air which results in more fertile soil, especially if you turn under the plants as green manure.  At the end of September, I planted several different snap peas; if I’m lucky, they will actually produce edible peas in a few weeks before the hard frosts and then I can turn them under in early spring.  If I’m unlucky, I won’t get any food out of it this season but will improve the soil for next.

In my raised bed that is less than a year old, I inter-planted Austrian peas (also sometimes called a field pea) and cereal rye last weekend.  Again, the Austrian Pea has the benefit of legumes fixing nitrogen; it is a hardy field pea that handles winter well.  The cereal rye is super hardy and will provide some support for the pea plants while also providing soil structure stabilization/erosion control.

One thing to keep in mind while using cover crops as green manure is that you must kill the cover crop before it matures so the crop itself doesn’t turn into a weed.  In the early spring, I’ll cut down the Austrian Pea and rye, wait a week, and then turn it under after a few days of sunshine when the soil isn’t completely waterlogged.

Do you plant cover crops in your garden?  Which ones and when?



3 responses to “Garden Friday – Winter Cover Crops

  1. Jessica October 28, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I’ve only dabbled in cover cropping, as I live in a part of the world where it is possible to garden year-round (albeit the options are limited from Nov-March). I have tried using straw mulch with some success, but it is sooooo attractive to my chickens, they will fly over a 4-foot fence to get their claws into a straw-mulched bed. I’ve had to disentangle a hen that hung herself upside-down by one toe that way. I’ve also tried simply intercroping my regular winter garden plants with low-growing clover. Now that I think about it, it’s time for me to buy some fresh clover seed!

  2. bettyjo October 29, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I cover the raised beds with pond weed and/or hay to about 8 inches.
    The brave little winter garlic, shallots and onions peak up above
    the mulch and snow. The kitchen garden (raised beds) are fenced
    to keep out critters (including chickens). I start cover cropping
    as soon as vegetables come out of the big garden. I’m partial to
    cereal rye, and hairy vetch. Most years we have our first frost
    around labor day, which is perfect for the cover crop to get a good
    start. My big vegetable garden is in a corner of a small paddock (3 acres)
    of hay. In October we move the cattle into that for their winter pasture.
    (I need to ‘rest’ the other pastures for 120 days to kill off any bovine
    parasites that might have accumulated over the summer). The cows love the
    rye and vetch, they chew it down along with any remaining squash vines etc.
    as soon as they arrive in that field. There’s always just enough left to
    reduce pudding in the garden. I move the cows out in early march
    (so they deliver calves onto clean pasture) and the rye/vetch grows back again,
    getting a goodly amount of biomass before it’s time to till.

    re: chickens and mulch. Yea, they are pretty sure it’s their job to scratch
    up mulch. I found a GREAT solution that works on the unfenced flower beds.
    It’s a motion detector on top of a stake with a hose bib and sprinkler on top. One 9 volt
    battery powers it. As soon as a chicken wanders close to the flowers,
    this thingby sprays ’em for 2 seconds. You can adjust the arc of the spray.
    They learn REALLY fast to forage elsewhere. This device wasn’t expensive. I have
    several, they don’t wear out.

  3. Pingback: {Garden Life} November garden happenings | No Ordinary Homestead

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