Not planting a winter garden? Here’s how to cover your beds for a fertile spring

Cover Crop

Cover crops like this Soil Builder Mix help fix nitrogen in beds for more productive crops in the spring.

You’ve had a fruitful garden this summer, but now it’s time to pull out those straggly tomato bushes and get ready for winter.

But what if you’re not enthused about being busy outdoors during the cold, rainy months? You can take the winter off and do your vegetable beds a big favor at the same time by simply planting a cover crop instead of winter vegetables.

What is a cover crop?

Cover crops are those planted for the purpose of enriching the soil while attracting beneficial insects. They’re usually planted in the fall and tilled under in the spring, after they’ve added nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Planting a cover crop also satisfies some of the need to rotate crops in that space.

What to plant?

Several types of crops can be planted, depending on your needs. If you’re trying to add nitrogen to the soil, plant legumes. Bell beans or fava beans (also known as broad beans) work well. Better yet, mix bell beans with common vetch and peas. Here are some options from the folks at Burpee Seeds and Plants.

If your aim is to add organic matter to the soil, cereals like oats or barley are good. Use a mixture of both legumes and cereals to add both nitrogen and organic matter.

Use a variety of seeds in your cover crop.

Use a variety of seeds in your cover crop.

Mastering cover crops

The master gardeners at the Sacramento County Cooperative Extension advise that it’s good to “fix” the nitrogen that forms on legume roots to ensure maximum growth. They do this by mixing an inoculant with the seeds before planting. This inoculant may be purchased online or in sacks from your garden store and mixed with water.

Plant cover crops by late October, or 6-8 weeks before the first frost, and plan to till the material into the soil about 3 to 6 weeks before planting in the spring. It’s important not to plant your new spring crop too early to ensure soil-borne diseases aren’t passed along, and to allow time for the soil nitrogen to become available.

How to plant

Scatter the seed on ground that has been tilled and raked level, and then rake again to cover the seeds. Otherwise, create shallow furrows and cover the seeds after sprinkling them in the rows. Keep the soil moist for a week to make sure they germinate. Mulch the bed with dry leaves or straw, and keep the bed moist when plants are young.

mulched cover crop

Mulch well with straw or dry leaves.

See more about how to plant cover crops and inoculate seeds in “Cover Cropping in Home Vegetable Gardens” from the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Isn’t it great to have the expertise of master gardeners at your disposal?

Kristi Garrett

Kristi Garrett is the Publisher, Editor and Chief Veggie Enthusiast of Little Green Wheelbarrow. After 16 years in journalism and corporate communications, she figures it's time to get some dirt under her nails.

Leave a Comment

Email (will not be published)