What do you do with your garden plot once it has stopped producing for the summer season?
Most people leave their garden soil bare, allowing weedy plant species to grow. This year, try using cover crops during your garden's "off-season" to improve your soil and add vital nutrients.
Cover crops are very beneficial for home gardens. They help reduce erosion by limiting the exposed soil and growing strong roots. Some cover crops can add nitrogen to the soil. Others can reduce weed pressure and add more biomass to the garden soil. All cover crops will act as natural manure if tilled into the soil the following spring.
Popular legume cover crops, which add nitrogen to the soil, are crimson clover, hairy vetch, and Austrian winter peas. Bacteria in the root systems of these plants "fix" nitrogen, which is then released into the soil when the plants die in the spring.
Other useful cover crops include mustards and tillage radish, which are known to reduce soil nematodes. Cereal and oats are also well known for keeping weed populations down.
Before planting your cover crop, you first need to tidy up your summer garden. Remove and dispose of all diseased plants. Many of these diseases will overwinter in the soil and show up next year. Use a string trimmer to mow down the remaining plants. Till these into the soil to build soil organic matter.
Seed for cover crops like crimson clover and Austrian winter peas can be found at your local seed-and-feed farm store or ordered through seed catalogs. Prices for seeds vary based on which plants you choose.
A mix of 2 or more cover crops can be a good choice to ensure proper soil coverage. Depending on the mix of seeds you choose, your seeding rate will normally be between one and three pounds of seed per 1000 square feet.
If you plan to plant legumes, such as clover or Austrian winter peas, be sure to buy the right inoculant. This will ensure that the correct bacteria are present for fixing nitrogen.
Plant your cover crops before the end of September to ensure good plant growth before the first frost.
Next spring, when you start to prepare your garden soil use a mower or string trimmer to knock down all of your cover crops. Many gardeners prefer to till the remaining cover crop residue into the soil a few weeks before new spring plantings. This will allow the cover crops to break down in the soil and decompose, which will release their stored nutrients.