Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Benefits of Planting a Fall Cover Crop by Jennifer Verprauskus

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth)  photo from Texas A&M  Extension


When Fall rolls around and everyone starts to put their gardens to bed, there are a few things to consider before you say good bye to the garden until next spring. It’s during this time of year that we have the choice to either plant a Fall garden or a Fall cover crop. 
The Fall Garden is typically started at the end of July or early August but it can be planted into September and October. In early to mid-October, we can replant Spinach, Cilantro, Arugula, Asian Greens, Kale, and other fast growing semi-cold hardy crops. However, when I plan on planting this late into the Fall, I think about using a season extender, which is a structure that captures heat from solar radiation and warms the plants and soil inside the covering, such as low hoops, heavy weight Reemay, Cold Frames and much more. 
If you don’t feel like messing with season extenders or a Fall garden but still want to do something that you can benefit from, a Fall cover crop might just be the way to go. Unlike the Fall garden that will be harvested into the early winter, cover crops will work your soil all winter long and most can be easily turned into the soil at the beginning of the spring. A cover crop is basically a high numbers of plants, grasses and/or legumes, which grow and cover a soil surface. 

After your garden beds have been cleaned up you’re ready to sow your cover crop. Make sure you weed and get all the extra debris lying around to prevent unwelcomed bugs from over-wintering. A good cover crop will add fertility and enrich the soil by adding nitrogen and other macro and microorganisms. Soil microorganisms are easily digested by the cover crops and they restore organic matter and nutrient levels in the soil. If you sow them dense enough, cover crops have the ability to outgrow weeds, control erosion, and help soil from compacting over winter. Some recommended Fall cover crops are Hairy Vetch, Austrian Winter Pea, Winter (annual) Rye and Crimson Clover. 

When planning to plant a Fall cover crop you must remember to water it enough to get established. Certain species have higher water requirements than others so it’s important to check before you plant. Also, make sure you have a long-term plan in mind. Are you going to till it in your soil in late winter/ early spring or are you okay if it stays around for a year or two? If you want to have a cover crop for a while, certain perennial varieties offer long-term solutions. Next time you walk into your garden, instead of thinking the season is coming to a close, think of the options you have to keep going! 
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