I have just come back from a great weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA. It was an opportunity to catch up with friends (old and new), the Mother Earth News editors, and Ingrid and Sara from New Society Publishers. The internet is nice, but after conversing by email all year it was wonderful to speak in person to all these folks. Speaking of speaking—I gave a presentation on my upcoming book Grow a Sustainable Diet. New Society had posters of all their authors who were speaking, including me. I discovered that my book will carry the Mother Earth News Books for Wiser Living Recommendation tag! I also spoke on Solar Food Dryers. Both talks were very well received. We came home on Monday by way of Pittsburgh to check out the seed library there, but that’s a story for another day. It is time to get back to the garden and plant cover crops.
Right now in Zone 7 (first expected frost in late October) we still have good cover crop choices, but time is running out for the legumes such as clover and vetch if we want to get them off to a good start. The time to plant crops intended to winter kill is past. If you wanted to have radish or oats in your bed, expecting a heavy cover before frost, then dying back in January, you would have needed to plant that a few weeks ago for best results in Zone 7. When planted early enough, those crops put on a lot of growth in the fall, crowding out weeds. Given a hard enough winter, they will die back and leave the soil ready for planting in early spring. However, if they are in a protected spot or the winter is too mild (as it was in 2012), they might not succumb to the weather. One year I had oats planted in a bed with a compost pile just to the north. That pile was enough protection to keep the oats from dying. It would have been a good place to have had winter greens for eating that year.
Wheat and winter rye could go in now. It is good to plant a small amount of a legume, such as hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas as a companion. Too much legume, especially hairy vetch, can overwhelm the grain crops if you intend to grow them out to mature grain. For more information on these and other possible crop choices, refer to Managing Cover Crops Profitably. If you don’t have a print copy, you can read it online http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition. Winter rye and Austrian winter peas are the two crops that can be planted the latest in the season and still do well. Although I try to finish planting cover crops in October, I’ve planted rye and winter peas in November when necessary.
Except for the crops planted earlier intending to winter kill, these fall planted cover crops will put on limited growth, then slow down when the weather turns cold. They wake up in the spring and start growing like mad. So, if your fall planted cover crops are short through the winter, don’t worry, that’s normal. At the resource page on my website you will find a handout with cover crop suggestions for fall, spring, and summer planting.
When deciding which cover crop to plant where, look ahead to what will be planted in each bed next year. You want the cover crop to be ready to come out when it is time to plant the next crop. This might not be as important if you were going to till it in, but I’m talking about managing these crops with hand tools. I like to plant rye in rows, rather than broadcast the seed, where I will grow out the rye to maturity the following summer, then plant carrots between the rows of rye stubble. Those become my winter carrots that you can read about here. My blog post Choosing Which Cover Crops to Plant Where will help you with your fall garden planning. It is possible to grow all your compost materials in your garden to feed back the soil as you grow. My post Planning for Soil Fertility and Compost Materials will help you with that.
Managing cover crops using only hand tools can be confusing to new gardeners and to gardeners who have always tilled them in. I understand that, which is why I produced my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. In that hour long video you see me in my garden each month (except August) from March through November, explaining what cover/compost crops are growing and how to manage them. Besides learning about each crop and seeing them growing, you will see me planting, cutting grains with a sickle, threshing, and shelling corn. My DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan these crops into your rotations to keep your garden beds full all year.
As you clear your beds to make way for cover crops, your spent crops become your next compost pile. Your garden gets cleaned up, the cover crops keep it green all winter, and with the right planning, the beds will be ready for their next crop come spring. Enjoy the adventure of cover crops!