Winter cover plant can improve the garden soil

No matter how small your garden is, it can play an important role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and temporarily trapping it in the soil. There are a number of ways you can improve this natural cycle, but at this time of year the best way is to take a catch crop.

Soils bare over the winter months are prone to weed growth, erosion that can wash away valuable nutrients, and carbon loss into the atmosphere. Soil nitrogen left over from this year’s harvest is washed out by autumn and winter rainfall. Planting a fast growing cover crop can help prevent these problems. The term “plant” can be misleading in this context. These plants are not meant to be harvested. Instead, they add vital nutrients, encourage beneficial bacterial growth, and stabilize the soil.

Simple and effective catch crops to plant at this time of year are annual ryegrass, vetch, red clover, and winter rye.

Annual rye and winter rye are particularly suitable as catch crops in the late season. They germinate quickly and are an effective barrier against weeds. However, grasses do not trap nitrogen in their root system. So consider pairing rye with a legume like red clover or vetch.
Vetch and red clover make good cover plants, whether in combination with rye or individually. As legumes, they are ideal for binding nitrogen in the soil. They’re also fertile enough to reduce weeds and prevent erosion.

In spring, its flowers attract bees to your garden. If you are concerned about overseeding vetch or clover in your lawn – although these are pretty plants and would add the biodiversity and vital nutrients – just cut them back before they bloom.

In spring you have two options. You can flip your cover crop in the soil so that your vegetables or flowers benefit from the nutrients they slowly release. Or you can prune it back and let it die naturally, plant it directly into the plant and use it as a mulch to further suppress weed growth and add nutrients to your garden. Depending on the cover you’re planting, this may be easier said than done as some, especially grasses, are difficult to sow or plant directly.

Grasses have a tightly packed root system, which makes them difficult to work or turn over. If your garden is particularly small or you garden in raised beds, rye may not be the best option. However, vetch and clover both have clumps of roots that can be easily dug up and turned over or planted in between. Make sure you finish the cover crop before you sow the plants.

– Kelly Jackson, Christian County Renewal Agent

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