Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
You might think that gardening is over for 2005, and it's too early to think about 2006. Think again! Preparations made in your garden now will give you a head start for 2006. Cover crops are one way to improve your soil during the winter months without a lot of time and effort.
Cover crops, also called "green manure", are ideal for vegetable gardens and annual flower beds. They are perfect for both new and established gardens. Many different plant species can be used as cover crops, such as legumes like vetch and clover, and grasses such as annual ryegrass, winter wheat, and winter rye.
A typical way to use green manure is to plant these crops in the fall after the garden is finished for the year. Seed of annual rye, winter wheat and winter rye will germinate and grow quickly in the cool fall weather. Winter rye is very cold tolerant, and will still germinate into late November.
An established cover crop offers some protection from soil erosion as winter descends on the land and brings with it wind, rain and snow. This cover crop also ties up soil nutrients in its tissues, preventing valuable nutrients from being washed away by winter rain and snow.
When spring finally returns, tilling the cover crop into the garden completes the cycle, returning nutrients and increasing the organic matter content in the soil. As the cover crop breaks down, it improves the soil structure by increasing drainage in heavy clay soil, and increasing moisture retention in sandy soils. Cover crops are also great sources of nutrients for garden plants, since the nutrients are released slowly as the cover crop decomposes.
Seed for different cover crops are usually available at nurseries and garden centers in the fall. Sowing most cover crops involves little more than broadcasting the seed over an area, gently raking it in, and watering if there is no rain predicted. With this minimal investment of time, money and effort, you will be rewarded next spring with a jump on improving your garden soil for 2006.