When the season changes and your summer plants are gone, your soil begs for some sort of protection from the cold weather to come. Harsh winds, freezing temperatures, sleet, and snow can reek damage on the soil without most of us realizing it.
Instead of covering it with a tarp, though, you should try a natural protector that can also help enrich your soil throughout those colder months. Here’s how to plant your cover crop to save your soil from the harsh winter.
What is a cover crop?
The name is an easy giveaway, but it’s a crop that covers the land for protection. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) defines a cover crop as, “a plant that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, increase biodiversity, and bring a host of other benefits.” While SARE refers to cover crops for farmers and larger pieces of farmland, planting a protecting plant over your home garden isn’t a bad idea.
When the growing season is done, the garden area of your yard is probably left bare, and planting a cover crop will prevent soil erosion from rain and snow, as well as store nutrients in the soil over winter. This method also benefits warmer climates by protecting the land from intense droughts. The USDA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service report, “[o]ver time, a cover crop regimen will increase soil organic matter, leading to improvements in soil structure, stability, and increased moisture and nutrient holding capacity for plant growth.”
Basically, when you use a cover crop you’ll have stronger soil for the following spring.
What types of cover crops to plant for the fall
There are a variety of ground cover plants that do a myriad of things. For general cover protection, ryegrass is a good choice. It’s planted in the cool months to grow thick and strong, but dies during the winter; the grass provides a blanket of protection through the cold, and when the warmer months roll around your soil will be ready for planting.
Winter rye reproduces quickly and adapts to any soil type. The plant’s extensive roots inhibit weed germination, and Vegetable and Berry Specialist Vern Grubinger reports winter rye’s “deep roots help prevent compaction in annually tilled fields.” However, these are aggressive winter plants, so be sure to plant them on our just before the first frost of the fall. Otherwise, they could take roots a little too quickly, overtaking your whole garden before you want.
Crimson clover is another good option, with beautiful tufts of red cone-shaped flowers. The crimson clover is a nitrogen-rich legume plant that No-Till Farmer reports produces “70-150 N [nitrogen] pounds on average.” This cover crop is perfect for suppressing weeds and attracting pollinators to your garden. They can easily sow seeds though, so make sure to mow them before they reach full bloom. The cover crop dies in colder temperatures, so these are great for those who live in warmer climates.
And if you really want to do soil surgery on your compacted ground, use oilseed radish. Its roots can break through the toughest clays, naturally aerating your soil making it ready for future planting.
How to plant no-til cover crops
The no-till approach is a recommended method for cover crop planting. Begin by lightly raking the area to stir the topsoil. Next, spread your seeds over the area as if you were seeding a new lawn. Old World Garden Farms suggests scattering half a pound to one full pound for every 40 square feet. After you’ve laid down the seed, lightly rake once more to help the germination process. Then, layer on half an inch of straw over the seed and soil, and you’re done. The cover crop should begin to sprout in seven to ten days, and you’ll be protected for the season.