For many home gardeners, the end of the pepper/tomato season signifies the end of their gardening endeavors until the following spring. Here at the ESY we have a variety of strategies for extending the growing season, keeping the soil healthy, and having programming opportunities throughout the fall and winter months.
First, what exactly is a cover crop, and why is it important? A cover crop is a seasonally appropriate planting that keeps some kind of vegetative growth going in the garden. This allows the roots to hold the soil in place, provides a home for beneficial insects (or their eggs), helps prevent soil nutrients from being washed away by rain, improves soil quality, and helps to mitigate temperature and moisture swings. Cover crops often are not food plants (though they can be). In nature, it is very rare to find bare patches of soil. If possible, pioneer plants will colonize bare soil soon after it is disturbed. One of our roles as gardeners is to mimic natural systems, when possible, while substituting our preferred plants into those important roles.
Some options for fall planting that will provide benefits to the garden ecosystem, as well as visual interest, and some food for you include: mustard greens, turnips, lettuces, fava beans, and garlic. Seeds for these plants are available at your local garden store. Cover crops that are not edible by the gardener, but that still serve many beneficial roles in the garden include: rye grass, clovers, and vetch. These seeds might be available locally, but I often order them from a seed company as this provides me a greater variety selection. (see the resources section for seed companies)
Different winter cover crops will require different management techniques in the spring, so it is somewhat important to choose an appropriate species in the fall. Fava beans and garlic will remain in the ground for a while to produce an edible crop (garlic usually finishes up in May or June). Lettuces or mustard greens can be removed easily in early spring for your next planting. Rye, clover, and vetch will grow rapidly in early to mid spring, and will then flower–it is at this point that they are usually cut down.
If you are unsure about planting a winter cover crop, it is at least advisable to leave some crop residue standing throughout the winter to prevent erosion. Hold off on that pruning until early spring just before new growth begins. Straw or pine needles will also serve a beneficial role if kept on your soil over winter.
Check back in a couple of months for tips on transitioning those winter cover crops to spring plantings.
Until then, happy cover cropping!