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Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Lawns, Ground Cover, & Wildflowers

Fall Garden Cover Crops (page 3 of 4)

by Charlie Nardozzi

Getting Started

For most home gardeners, the annual cover crops are the best choices. Sow annuals in fall, and they either die in winter or naturally complete their life cycle by the next spring. (Perennial cover crops such as alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense) require more maintenance and are best used as permanent crops in orchards and vineyards.)

You can plant cover crops two ways, depending on your other plantings: Sow seeds after you harvest earlier crops (lettuce, beans, or tomatoes, for example), or plant low-growing cover crops between rows of any fall-planted crop, such as broccoli or spinach.

Prepare the Soil. Don't skimp on soil preparation. Prepare the soil as you would for any other annual crop. Till the area and make sure the pH is between 6 and 7 (a soil test may be necessary). Broadcast seed at the recommended rates. On drier, sandy soil, plant three times as deep as the seed's width; on heavier soil, plant twice as deep as the width.

Plant. Sow seed at least 30 days before your first expected frost date. For cover crops that are only marginally hardy in your area, push back the sowing date to 60 days before the first frost. The more established a cover crop is before winter, the more likely it will overwinter well. Water the beds, if necessary, to help get the crop established. If you plant a legume crop, inoculate the seeds with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria prior to planting (available from cover-crop seed suppliers).

Choosing a Cover Crop. To decide which cover crop to grow, consider your region, the soil's needs, and your tools. To help novice gardeners, some seed companies sell mixes of grasses and legumes for and mild-winter areas; choices include Cold Zone Soil Builder Mix, which contains hairy vetch and cereal rye, and Soil Builder Mix, with bell beans, winter peas, vetches, and oats. Planting such mixes is the easiest way to sow cover crops.

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