Del Norte Gardening: Plant a winter cover crop in order to protect soil

Written by Paul Madeira and Julie Jo Ayer Williams September 29, 2011 04:45 pm

Del Norte Gardening runs monthly. Paul Madeira and Julie Jo Ayer Williams own Ocean Air Farms in Fort Dick.

As October draws near, there is one job on our minds that takes precedence above all others.

It is the winter cover crop, which we feel is the most important and time-sensitive task that will be the most beneficial to us in the spring.

For those of you who have never heard of a cover crop, we will do our best to explain. A cover crop is any plant, such as winter rye grass or clover, planted between periods of regular crop production to prevent soil erosion and provide humus or organic matter. Also known as a green manure, these crops tend to grow quickly and achieve a large mass of plant, or “organic matter,” as is commonly phrased.

In terms of erosion, it is easy to see the vulnerability of bare soil to the forces of wind and rain. With a tall stand of grass or legume the soil stands a much better chance of staying put. At the very least, the cover crop will do a great job of suppressing an entire winter’s worth of weed growth.

Now that we have mentioned a few reasons not to let the garden go for the winter, we’ll let you in on the facts that have shaped our farm’s use of the cover crop.

Lets face it, times are getting tough, prices are going up, and the last article we read of the economic state of the country predicted a 90-month recovery.  That puts us way out in like, 2016.  Our point is that this is a very good time to plant a garden, or better yet, start a new garden. And the challenge, (for us especially) is to do so without spending more than we’re getting out of that garden.

So, back to the cover crop. To restore fertility and maintain fertility, the cover crop is the best method we have found to add nutrients with the least amount of expense.

The smallest garden could be amended with only home-made compost, but for even a medium, and especially a large garden, you have to have a lot of good compost to cover that area. We plant a mixture of fava beans, peas, vetch and rye grass in the fall.

Let it grow all winter, usually mow it in the spring, then till it under and work the soil until it is ready to plant into. The most fascinating occurrence is that these “legumes,” such as clover, fava and peas, will fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, transfer it to the plant and with a shovel, push rototiller or tractor, we transfer it to the soil.

This is the where the economical fertilization is achieved. Not only is the tall plant with all its mass turned under to decay and feed soil life, but some of  the nitrogen, which naturally occurs in the air, is now in your garden. 

Whether, you are putting your garden to rest for the winter or considering growing a new garden next year, planting a cover crop will add many benefits to your soil.  Better soil tilth, less weeds and grass to break into, the “organic matter” to decay and feed, and especially, the nitrogen burst are all good reasons to try a cover crop.

Plus, they grow well, and we know we have more fun with crops that actually grow. We put together the seed mixture we use for the winter cover crop, which, is available in 5-pound bags at Crescent City Hay and Feed. Happy gardening!

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