For many gardeners, the first frost of the season isn’t too far away. The cold bite of winter will be here before we know it, so now is a good time to start thinking about how to protect your garden over the frigid autumn and winter months. There is one simple thing you can do to get a jump start on gardening next spring. Protect your soil and annual plants until the spring by planting cover crops in your garden. Cover crops will help protect your soil during the frosty weather, provide shelter for dormant plants, and replenish the soil’s nutrients after the growing season.
Common cover crops include winter ryegrass, annual ryegrass, oats, winter wheat, sweet clover, or a legume. Legumes are one of the most common cover crops which provide the spring soil with much needed nitrogen. Grasses grow more quickly, so a mixture of the two makes a good combination. Some cover crops, such as buckwheat, grow densely and leave little room for weeds. Cover crops help suppress weeds, improve the soil, and help control pests and diseases.
Start by cleaning out any dead parts of a plant, weeds, diseased plants, and other debris. Gently rake the soil, scatter the cover crop seed, and rake in lightly. Water as needed. The seeds should be planted about forty to fifty days before the first frost. You must chop down your cover crops before they set seed. The best time to do this is when they begin to flower. After you chop them down, allow the crops to dry for a couple days and then dig them into the soil.
The main purpose of a cover crop is to benefit the soil for future crops, and is not intended to be harvested for feed.
Another way to protect the soil during the winter months is to simply cover the garden area with a layer of compost. The compost can be from dead plants, leaves, straw, wood chips, or other organic material. To protect the plants that are still producing, or ones that stick around during the winter, clean out debris from around the plants, and lay down a bed of mulch consisting of straw, or leaves if you have some, leaving the plant plenty of room to stick out above the bed. The straw and leaf mulch will block weeds and keep the plants and soil warm.
This last bit of effort toward the end of the gardening season on your part will help you get a jump start on next year’s crops because your soil will be full of nutrients and ready to start growing.