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Connecticut Garden Journal: Covering More Ground With Cover Crops

Sep 17, 2015

Fall is an excellent time for soil building and one of the ways I keep my soil healthy is by growing cover crops.

Cover crops are plants grown specifically to add organic matter to the soil. Some, such as buckwheat, peas and oats, are annuals in our climate and die in winter. Others, such as winter wheat and hairy vetch, are perennials and survive until spring when you’ll have to mow, till or turn them under to kill them before planting.

Grains are great because they have extensive root systems that break up clay soil, while legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen to enhance plant growth. I plant some of both.

Some cover crops, such as oats and winter rye, even can inhibit weed growth. I usually sow a cover crop where I’ve pulled out some dying cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, cosmos, zinnias or other annuals. A good mix is field peas and oats. These can be sown now until late September and grow fast in our cool, moist autumn weather. They die in winter so there’s no need for tilling in spring.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa)
Credit Wikipedia / Creative Commons

If you want a cover crop that survives the winter holding the soil in place better, try winter rye and hairy vetch. You can sow these until around the first frost. You’ll have to mow and till this crop in spring about 3 weeks before planting anything else.  To sow a cover crop, create a seed bed and broadcast the seed on top of the bed lightly raking it in. It’s an easy way to feed your soil without relying just on compost.

Next week on the Connecticut Garden Journal I’ll be talking about reliable native shrubs. Until then I’ll be seeing you in the garden.