Improve Your Soil Naturally
Winter cover crops are a great way to improve your soil without using chemical fertilizers. Cover cropping can be very easy, and your Spring plants will love you for it. This is the time to plant them. Fertilizers that you buy at the store, even the Organic certified ones, can runoff into the groundwater and add to the phosphorus imbalance in natural streams and waterways that destroy creatures big and small living in the water. In fact, phosphorus runoff from large farms has been scientifically linked to recent outbreaks of toxic algea blooms across Ohio.
Cover crops are plants that you seed in order to improve your soil. It is especially important to fix nitrogen to your soil, as vegetable plants have no other way of getting nitrogen (other nutrients they are able to pull from the air, rain, sunlight, etc). Many cover plants fix nitrogen in the soil, and beautify your garden landscape in the meantime.
What to Plant:
The BEST COVER CROP is a MIXTURE of as many different cover seeds as you can get your hands on. Below are suggestions, but at least one nitrogen fixing crop is important.
Turnips and Radishes make excellent cover crops. They improve the soil, their flowers are attractive, they provide green color in your garden all winter, and their leaves (and roots) are completely edible!
Hairy Vetch fixes nitrogen in the soil, is green ALL winter, and produces purple flowers.
Winter Rye provides a healthy green cover to your soil all Winter, flowering in the Spring.
Crimson Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil AND produces a beautiful red flower. These are some of the first bloomers in the Spring, which honeybees love!
Winter Peas also fix nitrogen, and they can be a wintertime snack if you like peas!
Where to Plant:
Plant cover crops where your Summer crops grew this season, and/or where you will plant your Spring crops next season. Your soil is likely exhausted of its nutrients from your Summer crops and now needs to be rejuvenated. Cover cropping will add those nutrients back in preparation for next season, and you won’t have to fertilize in the Spring!
You don’t really ever want to leave any soil in your garden bare. Bare soil is an opportunity for weed seeds to germinate at any moment. Even if you do not cover crop, you should put mulch down on bare soil.
How to Plant:
Whichever method you use, be sure to seed your cover crop as THICK as you can! The less room between your plants, the less chance of weeds growing through.
The easiest way to plant cover crops is a no-till, no-fuss method. Simply sprinkle your seed mix as evenly as you can in the area of your garden you want to cover. Don’t do anything else. Your Summer crops will die off as we go into Winter. They will act as a mulch to keep weeds down that you don’t want. Fall rains will germinate the seeds of your cover crop, and it should come up on its own and provide a good groundcover all winter.
Some people do not like no-till methods. Your garden will appear less-well-kept, as it is impossible to keep ALL weeds out. If you use no-till methods you will likely be growing a mixture of plants – both your chosen cover crops and some weeds mixed in.
If you prefer a spotless-looking garden with no weeds at all, you can plant your cover crops using a tiller and a garden rake. Once your summer crops have stopped producing, but before freezing temperatures set in, you first till the ground where you summer crops are located. Second, broadcast your seed mix as evenly as you can. Third, use a garden rake to rake the seeds into the ground. Fourth, make sure your seeds get plenty of water (if it isn’t raining much) so that they will beat the weed seeds out of the ground. That’s it!
In the Spring
Once danger of frost has passed and you are ready to put your Spring crops in the ground, your Winter cover crops will have done their job. Prepare your garden as usual. If you cover crop regularly, you will never need to buy fertilizer again.