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Cover crops beneficial for gardens throughout the winter
Recently, after much consideration, I made a tough decision. I fully committed to sowing a fall and winter cover crop in each and every one of my vegetable plots — an all-in charge that I’ve traditionally only allotted for a few raised beds at a time.Cover crops are beneficial in numerous ways, whether you’re a big scale farmer or a backyard enthusiast like myself. Soil that is used to grow fast, seasonal crops simply needs the occasional break. And I get it, I really do. But choosing between replenishing my soil and forgoing my fall greens, beets and radishes was a struggle. I know I chose wisely, but I was really looking forward to pickling those rainbow beets.For those who are unfamiliar with cover crops, here is the gist. Cover crops are thick or close growing crops that rejuvenate and enrich the soil. They’re sown as seeds and broadcast across the garden. Planted in rotation with food crops, cover crops help build back the nutrients and organic material that was depleted by the food crop.Many cover crops are legumes, which replenish nitrogen in the soil. Other cover crops grow thick, improving soil quality and keeping weeds at bay. All cover crops help to build soil biomass, protect soil from erosion, improve soil porosity and shelter beneficial pollinators. At the end of their season, cover crops are either tilled under or cut at soil level to provide a green mulch.If you’ve been considering sowing a winter cover crop in your vegetable garden, now is the time to do it. In the Piedmont region of North Carolina, there are two types of winter cover crops — winter-kill cover crops and winter hardy cover crops. Choosing one over the other is a matter of patience — as each dictates a timeline for you to get back to planting edibles again.Winter-kill cover crops are typically planted in late summer, grow throughout fall and will be killed by freezing temperatures in the winter. Come March, if you know you’ll be chomping at the bit to plant early spring vegetables such as snap peas, lettuce and radishes, then a winter-kill cover crop would be ideal.Winter-kill cover crops include oats and field peas. Oats grow quickly, forming a thick mat, and field peas are a nitrogen fixer. Both help to build up soil biomass, replenish organic material and suppress weeds. When freezing temperatures kill these crops, the dead plant material forms a protective, organic mat on the soil surface, which has a couple benefits of its own.The dead plant material of winter-kill cover crops can help serve as a weed barrier for early spring edible crops. It also helps protect the soil from erosion and offers a habitat for overwintering insects and pollinators.The Forsyth Cooperative Extension recommends planting a winter-kill crop by mid-August, to give the seeds sufficient time to germinate and grow to maturity before the first killing frost. However, over the past few years, we’ve experienced prolonged growing seasons, as warmer weather has stuck around a bit longer than normal. If you plant now, you can still see benefits from planting a winter-kill cover crop.Winter-hardy cover crops are typically planted early to mid-September. I’ve always associated the Labor Day holiday as good timing for sowing winter-hardy cover crops. Just as the name implies, winter-hardy cover crops will survive cold winter temperatures and persist until late spring. Because they are slower growing, winter-hardy cover crops take longer, but they pack the most benefits to your garden.Keep in mind that if you chose to sow this type of cover crop, you will not be able to plant early spring edibles. I’ve chosen to sow a winter-hardy cover crop of crimson clover, which will command my vegetable plots from mid-September through late April (gasp!). The long season of this cover crop will significantly benefit my garden in the long run, though, and it’ll be worth every fresh radish that I miss out on.The most common winter-hardy cover crops are winter rye and crimson clover. Winter rye is a moderate- to fast-growing grass that will die out once hot weather returns in spring. It will form a thick mat and keep fall and spring weeds at bay. I’ve sown winter rye over a few of my vegetable plots in the past, and it has helped with wash out from strong winter storms we experienced a few years ago.Crimson clover is a wonderful plant to have working as a cover crop in your garden. Not only is the foliage attractive, but the deep red spikes of the spring blooms are beautiful and abundant. Beneficial insects flock to the flowers, which bloom in May, signaling the end of the crop’s rotation. Known as perhaps the best nitrogen fixer of all legumes, crimson clover can fix upwards of 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre.I plan on sowing my crimson clover next week, which will give my peppers and okra just a few more days before I say goodbye. Although I’ll miss this fall’s leafy greens and root crops, I’ll rest easy knowing that my cover crop is hard at work feeding my soil.And to be honest, I think I’ve found a spot in my pollinator bed to sow a couple patches of tatsoi and radishes. After all, a girl has to eat, right?Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon or [email protected], with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.
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