Special to the OBSERVER
The growing season is in full swing now and it won't be long before you begin to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labors. While you are enjoying your bounty, you should give some thought to what you are going to do with your garden when the harvest is complete. Consider planting a cover crop for the winter.
All that we do in our gardens--tilling, weeding, planting, harvesting, pushing wheelbarrows, and just walking around-tends to destroy the soil. A cover crop planted at the end of the year can help reverse the damage.
Commercial growers use cover crops during the growing season and the dormant season. During the growing season, they employ cover crops to inhibit weed growth, reduce dust and erosion, lessen soil compaction, and reduce the effects of excessive rain. During the dormant season, they use cover crops to help rejuvenate the soil, creating organic matter to be tilled under in the spring and roots that open up passageways in the soil for air and water movement. The home gardener can do the same.
In a home garden, a cover crop planted in late summer or early fall holds the topsoil, prevents loss during wind and rain events, prevents weed growth, and provides a root system that keeps the soil from compacting. In the spring, after it is tilled under, the cover crop-top growth and roots-becomes organic matter for the new planting.
If you are considering an end of the season cover crop, good candidates are annual ryegrass, perennial ryegrass, and winter rye. Annual ryegrass is the least expensive and the easiest to get established. It does not overwinter, meaning that it will be killed by winter frost, so it is much easier to turn over in the spring tilling. It grows vigorously and its root system goes as deep into the soil as the roots of many garden plants. Perennial ryegrass and winter rye are also good choices, though both overwinter, which make them harder to incorporate in the spring. Winter rye is a good choice for late planting.
Plan to plant your cover crop in late August or early September; or as each area in your garden is harvested and cleared. For most of New York State, the end of September is the cut off for planting cover crops successfully. Get the garden ready by first clearing it of all debris and large stones. Rake the entire area smooth. Broadcast the seed according to package instructions. You will need about two ounces of annual ryegrass seed per 100 square feet (one ounce of perennial rye grass and three ounces of winter rye for the same space). Rake lightly and water with a fine mist.
If your garden is large enough, cover crops can provide benefits during the growing season as well. In the spring, you can plant buckwheat and clover in vacant areas to suppress weed growth. Just before they go to seed, till them under to improve soil quality. If you have paths in your garden, you might consider planting them in a grass like rye or fescue or a legume like red clover. The crop reduces weeds, inhibits the soil compaction caused by foot and wheelbarrow traffic, and reduces mud, making it easier to get into the garden after a heavy rain. You'll have to occasionally move the paths, but the effort is worth the benefits.
Consider cover crops. They offer a number of natural ways to keep your garden in good shape.
David Schaut, Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CCE) Master Gardener