Winter Cover Crops Benefit Vegetable Gardens

Written by Hannah Madrone
Updated August 29, 2016
gardening tool for planting cover crops
Planting cover crops can protect and revitalize your vegetable garden's soil during the winter. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Giorgi)

Cover crops have been gaining ground with home gardeners recently — and with good reason.

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In the most basic terms, cover crops are plants grown to protect or improve the soil rather than for harvest. Organic and sustainable farmers widely use this ancient technique, and home gardeners are now discovering the benefits.

Sowing a winter cover crop can beautify your winter garden, greatly improve your soil and attract beneficial insects, creating a healthier, more bountiful garden. Although it can seem complicated, the basics of cover cropping are actually quite simple. Here are some of the biggest benefits.

Cover crops offer soil protection

Bare soil becomes compacted during heavy winter rains. Compacted soils lead to numerous gardening headaches. A layer of straw, leaves or other mulch material can help, but a living mulch of winter cover crops is even more effective. The leaves act as a cushion for falling rain, while the roots hold spaces open in the soil.

Weed suppression

Cover crops won’t stop weeds entirely, but they’ll at least compete with them. The cover crops will be much easier to remove than weeds when it’s time to replant your garden.

Healthy soil life

Soil is alive with all sorts of microbes, insects and fungi. These organisms are adapted to living among plant roots. Keeping plant life thriving in your garden all year will protect and nurture your soil ecosystem. You'll have lush greens instead of barren mud all winter, followed by a blooming mini-meadow in the early spring.

Restored organic matter

Once spring arrives, you’ll cut down your cover crop, dig it under and allow it to compost in place. This restores depleted organic matter just like adding a bag of compost, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you grew the organic matter.

Natural fertilizer

Certain cover crops work with associated soil bacteria to pull nitrogen from the air and “fix” it into a form plants can use. Once the cover crops are tilled into the soil, the additional nitrogen becomes available to whatever crops you plant in your garden next. This is why nitrogen-enhancing legume cover crops are sometimes called “green manures.”

Are you thinking about planting a cover crop to protect your garden soil over winter? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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