Consider benefits of cover crops for gardens

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By Dennis Morgeson

If you don’t normally plant a fall cover crop on your vegetable garden, you should seriously consider it. There are many benefits of fall cover crops of which I will discuss in this article.

When you plant a fall cover crop, you eliminate many of the summer annual weeds from seeding, thus killing millions of future seedlings from germinating next spring and summer (how many weeds are going to seed right now in your garden?).

When you eliminate weeds by cultivating and removing old plant debris, you also remove overwintering places for insects and diseases. The majority of insect and disease problems are caused by leaving plant debris and weeds in your garden during the winter.

The main benefit of a cover crop is soil protection from sun, rain and wind. A covered soil doesn’t wash or leach! Roots from cover crops go deep into the soil retrieving nutrients. These nutrients remain in the plant until you turn it under or mow it off. At that point the nutrients are released back into the soil where your vegetable, fruit and flower crops can get to it. The cover crop debris will also help loosen your soil and improve its overall tilth.

Some cover crops will even fix nitrogen to their roots, which in turn will be released to your garden come spring. Some gardeners that have their soil built up and use nitrogen fixing plants don’t even have to apply manure or fertilizers; enough nitrogen is fixed by the legumes to sustain the new crops.

You can plant rye, wheat, winter oats and barley now through early November. You can also plant legumes such as hairy vetch, big flower vetch, crimson clover and Austrian winter pea now. The Austrian winter pea can be planted through October but does benefit from being mixed with one of the small grains like rye or wheat. It can winter kill if not given a little protection from other plants.

Again, I can’t stress enough the benefits of the legumes. They fix nitrogen to their roots which is released into the soil. They protect your soil, hold nutrients at the top of the soil for next year and fix or add nitrogen to your soil!  Remember that cover crops protect and build soil, which also grows better vegetables next season.