By June Zeller, West Gardener Garden Club~

Oftentimes gardeners ask about putting their gardens “to bed” for the winter.  There are many approaches to this subject.  This short article discusses the use of cover crops in the vegetable garden.

One of the first observations a gardener makes is that open (or bare) soil doesn’t stay that way for long and for good reasons.  Look anywhere in nature and one does not see open soil. Weeds easily invade.  Open soil dries out easily, is subject to erosion from winds, and loses its fertility more quickly.  This is particularly true in the vegetable garden over the winter, particularly in winters with little snow or an inconsistent snowpack.

There are many ways the vegetable gardener can protect the soil.  During the summer, she might sow Dutch white clover between the rows.  Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and is also quite efficient at smothering weeds.  On the other hand, if left to become well established, it is different to dig into the soil at the end of the season.

Another nice cover crop for the summer months is buckwheat.  It grows quickly and its juicy stems are easily dug into the soil.  If sown thickly, it smothers weeds relatively efficiently.

Early spring and late summer are good times to sow oats.  Spring sown oats are usually allowed to ripen and then mowed to create a mulch.  Late summer-sown oats will continue to grow into the fall and winter kill, leaving you a nice garden already mulched with straw in the spring. Some gardeners sow a crop of oats in the spring, bend them over before the seed heads ripen, and cover them with a tarp for a week or so.  That’s enough to stop growth, leaving a nice mulch into which one can plant.

In the fall, one can sow either rye or winter wheat.  These crops will germinate in the fall and overwinter.  They resume growth in the spring when they can either be tilled in early (several tillings may be necessary) or allowed to grow to maturity.  If mowed when the seed heads are ripening, they provide a great mulch and their roots will slowly compost further enriching the soil.

For more ideas about using cover crops in the vegetable garden, here’s a link to a detailed article by Will Bonsail in the MOFGA Fall 2015 newspaper: