Consider cover crops for your vegetable garden

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Crimson clover & annual ryegrass cover crop allen dean farms
A field of crimson clover and annual ryegrass at Allen Dean Farms, in Williams County, Ohio. (Submitted photo)

By Brianna Roe

Most people have heard about cover crops being planted in corn and soybean fields around Ohio, but have you ever thought that our backyard gardens need the same cover in the winter?

Cover crops are planted to cover the soil rather than for the purpose of being harvested. They help to manage soil erosion, fertility, quality, water, weeds, pests and disease. Cover crops also act like a green manure and provide organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

With all of the benefits associated with planting cover crops, now is the time to start planning what crop will be planted in your garden. Some commonly planted cover crops include annual rye grass, hairy vetch, buck wheat, red clover, peas, and winter rye. A pre-mixed seed packet can also be purchased to make the process easier.

How and when. Once mid-August hits, it is time to start thinking about getting the seeds into the ground for the intended cover crop. Planting dates range from mid-August to late-September. The ideal time to plant is about four weeks prior to the anticipated killing frost. The plants need to be established before the fall chill appears.

To plant your cover crops, the soil needs to be broken up; you can either do this by tilling or spading the soils. Make sure all large rocks are removed as well. You will want the seed bed to be approximately 6 inches deep, as this will help establish a healthy root system.

For small seeds like rye grass and buckwheat, broadcasting is the ideal way to plant. Broadcast the seeds over the soil and cover them with light raking. Large seeds like peas, vetch, and wheat need to be planted in shallow, closely spaced furrows.

If the garden is still growing fall vegetables at the time of planting the cover crop, plant the seeds between the rows of current plants. If the soil is dry at the time of planting, water often enough to keep the soil moist for germination of the seeds.

Growing season. The best part of a cover crop is they do not need any maintenance during the winter. The main goal of the crop is to cover the entire area of exposed soil, let the crop grow wild and take up the entire garden.

Killing off the cover crop. Once spring and warmer weather returns, it is time to kill off the cover crop. Remember the sole purpose of the cover crop is to be planted and not harvested. The recommended way to kill off the cover crop in the spring is to turn it into the soil. You can do this by tilling it up and working the vegetation into the soil.

If the crop is too small to turn into the soil, you can mow over it first, then turn it into the soil. The goal is to kill the crop off before it goes into head to seed.

Another plus to a cover crop, is it adds a nice mulch to the garden for the next planting season. Happy planting.

(Brianna Roe works for the Guernsey Soil and Water Conservation District.)

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