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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Put your garden to bed with fall/winter cover crops!

Like it or not, fall and winter will be here before we know it! During the off-season, too many gardeners leave their vegetable or flower gardens bare over winter. This can cause major problems for the following growing season, especially an invasion of winter weeds and erosion of high-quality topsoil to boot. Beat the weeds and hang on to your soil this fall, winter and spring by planting a cover crop, or at least putting down some straw. 

In case you missed it, an article detailing the benefits of spring cover cropping was posted to our blog in April. Just type “Frillman” and “cover crops” together and the article will show up in a web search. Cover cropping for fall into winter is much the same as in spring, so check out the article to get reliable cover crop establishment instructions; it has the names of seed companies to order from online (if you don’t have a local seed dealer), how to determine how much seed to get, exact details about how to sow your seed, termination instructions, and most importantly, the four basic “ingredients” needed to be successful:

  1. Good seed-to soil-contact
  2. Adequate moisture (every 2nd day irrigation in late summer), to ensure germinating seeds don’t dry out
  3. Temperatures above freezing (necessary for some, not others)
  4. Sunlight
Germinating cover crops
Germinating cover crops; photo by Nick Frillman, University of Illinois Extension

I know when I began organic gardening by myself about 10 years ago, I always hated the first few days in the garden, in March, to clear weeds so I could plant peas and other spring crops. My hands got cold, my back hurt, and I thought every year, “there has to be a better way.” Well, there is! Put out a cover crop this fall; the good news is that you don’t need a seed drill to seed cover crops. You can use your hands! Some common cover crop seed for fall and winter including oats, field pea, hairy vetch, various kinds of clover, winter kale, winter rye, and more. If you are “never done this before” new to cover cropping, a field pea and oats mix is a sturdy, reliable pair of plants to start with. 

To get a more thorough background on cover crops before proceeding, do a web search for “James Theuri cover crops in small gardens”; though retired now, James was a University of Illinois Extension Local Foods Systems and Small Farms Educator and his hour-long webinar on Youtube is full of good information.

If well-executed, cover crop benefits seen in the first year can include increased water infiltration, nitrogen fixation, increased organic matter, subsoil nutrient mining for topsoil release, weed suppression, and more!

Gardeners who put in a cover crop in early September for fall, winter AND spring will experience two additional benefits that spring-only cover croppers will not:

  1. Greater garden fertilizer nutrient capture; some of that fertilizer that you applied in summer is likely still in the soil, but after winter rains, it’s not likely to stick around; cover crop roots will uptake your money, now in fertilizer form, and turn it into above-ground biomass that will decompose slowly over time, when terminated, fertilizing future crops.
  2. Rapid spring (re)growth; some cold season cover crops like hairy vetch and winter rye will grow in the fall, die back to the roots for winter, and regrow in spring from roots; this results in improved spring weed suppression and high amounts of biomass that will break down into organic matter later.
Cover crops at Unity Garden
Cover crops at Unity Garden; photo by Nick Frillman, University of Illinois Extension

At the end of the day, whether cover crops are used in your garden is a personal decision, factoring in time, labor, and cost, to name a few. However, the science is clear that keeping your soil covered is instrumental in preventing topsoil erosion, according to a new study out by Iowa State University. If you don’t want to use cover crops, but you want to keep your topsoil for next year and suppress weeds, consider using straw to put your garden to bed for winter.

Straw is locally available, cheap, and potentially effective at suppressing weeds (if you layer it on thick enough). The straw residue will increase snow harvest, blunt the impact of heavy raindrops, and if 3” or more are applied, will block germination of some winter annual weeds. Bonus: straw is usually from wheat, and most bales carry rogue wheat seed. If it germinates in your garden, don’t pull it! Wheat is a great winter cover crop. 
Keep your soil covered and your garden will thank you later!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Frillman is a Local Foods and Small Farms Educator serving Livingston, McLean & Woodford counties. A fourth-generation graduate from University of Illinois, Frillman has a B.A. with a double major of Political Science and Spanish and a M.S. in Crop Science with a focus on crop production. Before joining Illinois Extension, Frillman completed a field season of CSA and farmers’ market style production at a small “beyond-organic” vegetable farm in Sandy, Ore.