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5 Cool-Weather Cover Crops To Plant Now In Your Garden

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Want to preserve, protect, and enrich your garden soil over the winter? Planting cover crops will do the trick! Here are some tips on how and why to plant a cover crop, and which ones to try in your garden…

You may think of cover crops as something that only large-scale farmers do, but in reality, they can be very beneficial for small backyard gardens too!

Why Plant Cover Crops?

Cover crops are typically grasses or legumes, which blanket (or cover) your garden soil for a temporary period to provide protection and even increase the nutrients of your soil. Some cover crops add extra organic matter or nitrogen, while others have deep, penetrating roots that can loosen compacted soil, providing better drainage and aeration. All cover crops protect soil from the eroding effects of water and wind. The cover that these crops provide also offers shelter for natural garden pest predators – which are especially important for organic gardeners.

As you can see, there are some great reasons to plant some cover crops in your empty garden beds this winter.

How to Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops may be planted anytime in the fall, as soon as you clean your summer plants out of your garden beds. You can also plant them between rows of remaining fall crops, so that once the fall crops come out, the cover crop can take over. The earlier you can plant your cover crops, the better, as they will have more time to get established before the ground freezes.

There are many different types of cover crops available – some as individual types, and others are sold as a mixture. They typically come in two major types – legumes, which increase nitrogen availability in the soil, and grasses, which provide organic matter and good ground cover.

Once winter is over, you can till the cover crop under and allow it to decompose for several weeks to enrich the soil before spring planting, or you can simply mow or cut the crops and let them lie as mulch to keep weeds down until you are ready to plant spring crops.

According to Rodale’s Organic Life, these 5 cover crops are great for small gardens as well as larger plots, and will provide your garden with all of the benefits listed above.

5 Cool-Weather Cover Crops for Small Gardens

Tillage Radish
When to plant: Late summer or early fall; it won’t survive northern winters
Best use: On heavy soil 
Benefits: Long taproots break up hardpan; grows quickly

Hairy Vetch
When to plant: Late summer or fall 
Best use: On acidic, well-drained soils 
Benefits: Regrows vigorously in spring following fall planting; adds nitrogen

Field Peas
When to plant: Spring or fall 
Best use: On soils lacking organic matter
Benefits: Smothers weeds; adds nitrogen

Crimson Clover
When to plant: Spring or fall 
Best use: Beneath taller crops, since it tolerates shade
Benefits: Helps control erosion; adds nitrogen; can be used as forage

Winter Rye
When to plant: Late summer or fall 
Best use: On soils lacking organic matter 
Benefits: Germinates and grows in cold soil

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