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Beacon Senior News

Consider cover crops: A full-circle garden starts with soil

Aug 28, 2017 02:32PM ● By Paige Slaughter

Summer is fading and fall is creeping in. We’re canning, pickling and drying. We’re eating tomatoes with every meal, cooking squashes and making vegetable soups. We’re pulling out plants that have had their fun.

And as we mosey around the garden, we have something to consider: the cycle continues. Fall reminds us that nature is cyclical. Leaves fall from trees and become soil that sprouts life.

Thinking of winter

As we begin to pull plants out of the garden, we leave behind areas of bare soil. Cover crops protect soil through the winter like a wool sweater. They add organic matter, help prevent erosion and compaction, and suppress weeds.

Choosing cover crops depends on your goals. There are two kinds to consider: winter-killed and winter-hardy.

Winter-killed cover crops grow rapidly, then die back after a few hard frosts. They add organic matter to the soil and hold it in place until spring. Winter-hardy crops stay alive through winter and thrive again in the spring. They can extend your growing season, increase soil fertility and provide a living mulch for your garden beds.

Endless possibilities

Our climate enables us to explore both types of cover crops.

Two common perennial crops are hairy vetch and clover, which can outcompete weeds. Deep roots loosen compacted soils, adding nitrogen, too. Annual options for winter-killed crops include oats, buckwheat and radishes.

You can use multiple winter-killed crops and even mix them with some hardy crops for a range of effects. By sowing a mixture of seeds, you’ll learn about your garden’s needs directly from the soil itself.

You can even mix in an edible crop like arugula that will survive winter and provide you with delicious greens. Sow it this month alongside cover crops or on its own in a healthy patch of soil. Arugula doesn’t mind being under a blanket of snow—you can even harvest some greens through winter. In the spring, it will flourish as everything else comes back to life.

Connecting fall to spring with cover crops is an excellent and easy way to bring your garden full circle.

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  • Plant perennials to give them time to establish before the first hard frost.
  • Begin limiting water to trees and shrubs to prepare them for winter.
  •  Harvest basil by the stem and keep in a vase of water instead of the fridge.
  •  Keep tomatoes on the counter — cold temperatures diminish their flavor.
  •  Core-aerate your lawn after a heavy rain.
  •  Order cover crop seeds.
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