Planting Winter Cover Crops to Boost Soil Fertility

By the end of each growing season, your garden's been through a lot - tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting - and not to mention getting stepped and squatted on while you work outside. Luckily, winter allows your garden to rest and rejuvenate, but leaving it exposed to harsh weather conditions can leach nutrients and prohibit water retention and soil aeration. Cover crops are the perfect solution for improving soil fertility with a little TLC - even when winter gives it the cold shoulder.

Winter cover crops improve soil aeration, boost water retention, decrease water and wind erosion, subdue cold-season weeds, plus enhance soil fertility and mineral distribution.

There are two main types of winter cover crops: winter-killed cover crops and cover crops that survive the winter. Winter-killed cover crops, like oats and oilseed radish, are planted in late summer or early fall but are killed by frost soon after they mature. In the winter, they serve as ground cover that improves soil tilth and crop yield. Cover crops that survive the winter ' like winter rye, winter wheat and crimson clover ' are planted in the fall so their established root systems can store nitrogen in the winter. You can tear the crops down in the spring and till the debris back into the ground to release the nitrogen and replenish soil.

Cover Crop Growing Tips:

  • Winter-killed oats are great options for home gardeners because they grow quickly and are easy to plant. You may want to avoid winter rye because it generates tough sod, and leguminous cover crops like alfalfas and clovers because they're slow-growing.
  • Kill your cover crops before their top growth gets out of control. If left unattended, they could spread like weeds and take over the garden. When they begin to bloom, simply cut them down at the base of the plant.
  • Incorporate the killed crops back into the soil, and wait 2-3 weeks before reseeding for the growing season. This allows the organic material to decompose and fertilize your garden.
  • If you want to see how winter cover crops are affecting your soil, consider leaving a bare patch in your garden. That way you can compare the growth in each section when you plant in the spring.

Try to plant your winter cover crops at least 30 days before the first frost, so they have enough time to grow before the freezing temperatures hit. If you didn't have a chance to plant them this fall though, don't worry, you can always plant them next year.