Matt Tillett-St. Mary's MD-Flickr.com 2.0
What is a cover crop?
It is a plant cover you establish in your garden during the off-season. Typically they are plants that do well in cool weather. The benefits of cover crops are many. Cover crops improve your soil. They are a good source of organic matter. Their roots capture excess nutrients that would be lost and could potentially become a source of pollution. The roots also help break up soil compaction leaving your soil in a condition that is favorable for healthy growth next spring. Cover crops also reduce or eliminate erosion. We often get heavy rains in the fall. The cover crop not only blocks the pounding of rain drops it also holds the soil securely so it won't be moved by the water. Finally, cover crops look nice. The beautiful green color of rye or wheat in the fall and early spring is a big improvement over the old, dead vegetable plant debris.
So what plants make a good cover crop?
Wheat and rye are good choices. The seed is relatively inexpensive. They establish with little effort. They should be planted in October. Both of these crops will survive the winter. You will need to turn them under in the spring when they grow a foot tall. Be aware that rye grows very aggressively in the spring while wheat grows more slowly. Buckwheat or oats are also a good choice if you are planting in September. Both of these crops will be killed by winter temperatures. Buckwheat dies after the first frost. Oats won't die until late December.
The first thing you will want to do before planting your cover crop is to remove any stakes, hoses or other hardware from the garden. You can then mow off any existing plants. Lightly till the garden, just an inch or two, to loosen the soil and mix in the old plant material. Broadcast the seed. Oats, wheat, and rye should be planted at about 4 pounds per 1000 sq./ft. Plant buckwheat at 2-3 pounds per 1000sq/ft. Then lightly till or rake in the seed. It will emerge in a week to ten days. You do not need to fertilize the cover crop but it will benefit from a small amount of fertilizer or manure.
Wheat and rye will form a thick cover this fall but will not grow tall until next spring. Buckwheat and oats will grow to be about two to two and a half feet tall in the fall.
Continued use of cover crops will result in a garden that is more productive and can better handle drought stress. It is worth the effort.