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Winter Gardening or Cover Crops

October 18th, 2011

If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know that the last couple years I’ve been experimenting with winter gardening. Growing spinach and other hardy greens in a hoop house over the cold winter months here in NE Ohio.

I do have a few small sections of the garden planted with some greens for a late winter harvest, but this year I’m focusing more on improving the soil. I do have garlic, perennial leeks, shallots and potato onions overwintering in one area of the garden. There are also three small squares of spinach and arugula and a few kale plants in the back raised bed, along with a few leeks left here and there.

The soil here at Chiot’s Run is very lean, as a result I decided to devote part of the garden each season to growing cover crops instead of vegetables. Of course some cover crops are edible, but I want to be able to add as much organic matter to the soil as possible, so I won’t be harvesting much if any of the cover crops.

Part of the garden was planted in mustard over a month ago. Mustard will winter kill. The remainder is planted in Fall Green manure mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, that will survive through the winter and come up early next spring.

The areas without cover crops have been spread with a partly composted chicken manure from the local farm and covered with straw. This manure will compost down over the winter and earth worms will help work it down into the soil. Next spring I should have much better soil because of my efforts this fall. It will take many years of this to develop into a deep rich loam, but I’m a patient gardener. I do believe that gardeners really are growing soil and not plants. That should be our focus. We can’t forget that it starts with the soil, without it we would have nothing.

I just purchased the book Managing Cover Crops Profitably and I have found it to be a wonderful resource for cover crop information. I’ve only looked up a few things and I already know it will come in very handy. This winter, I hope to have time to write up a series for this blog about using cover crops in the home garden with information gleaned from this book an other sources.

Do you plant cover crops in your garden? Would you be interested in a series on cover crops here on Chiot’s Run?

20 Comments to “Winter Gardening or Cover Crops”
  1. kathi cookk on October 18, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Yes I would! It is something i have been interested in as well, but have never researched too heavily. I have pretty fertile soil to begin with however it probably would be a good way to keep it replinished. Now I just use chicken manure aand compost.It seems like a lot of the info available is geared toward warmer climates and wasn’t sure how to use cover crops in the Northeast without interefering with spring/summer planting.

    Reply to kathi cookk's comment

    • Susy on October 18, 2011 at 6:44 am

      From what I am reading, cover cropping is really great for mitigated disease & fungus (much more so than sprays & chemical treatments). So it would definitely be a great addition to any garden, even on with good soil.

      The book listed above does have recommendations for different areas of the country, which I have found to be really nice. Some of the areas I’ve read through so far also recommend certain cover crops that winter kill and then provide a nearly weed free seed bed because of the layer of mulch they produce, and they’ll loosen up the soil for spring planting as well.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  2. farmgal on October 18, 2011 at 7:54 am

    I use cover crops in the garden and am always up for learning more about it, I would be interested in reading your thoughts and idea’s on this great subject matter.. If possable at least one write up on cover crops that can be used as small animal feed to help cut feed costs would be icing on the cake.

    Reply to farmgal's comment

  3. songbirdtiff on October 18, 2011 at 8:38 am

    I haven’t used cover crops, but I plan to. I don’t actually know ANYONE who uses them, so I’m anxious to learn more!

    Reply to songbirdtiff's comment

  4. Gayle on October 18, 2011 at 8:46 am

    I’m a new gardener so I don’t really understand cover crops enough to utilize them. I am VERY interested in learning more about them. I have poor soil composed mostly of clay and/or sand. I raise llamas and use their manure which is helping bunches, but would love to know more about green manure. Thank you Susy!

    Reply to Gayle's comment

  5. Daedre Craig on October 18, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I would love to know more about cover crops. I should really use them because my garden is huge and I would love to have a way to deter weeds from growing.

    Reply to Daedre Craig's comment

  6. goatpod2 on October 18, 2011 at 9:24 am

    We’ve just did our 1st year in winter gardening this year.


    Reply to goatpod2's comment

  7. t on October 18, 2011 at 9:37 am

    IT’s things like this that really make me happy I ever tripped across your blog. You are better then ical to remind me to get to it…I have some plants I hope to extend with covers.
    I seriously love your blog. It is always so helpful to me….not to mention beautiful to look at .
    Thank you for being a haven of information.

    Reply to t's comment

  8. mistresseve on October 18, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I would love to know more about cover crops. At the moment I am renting, and I’m not sure if I will be here in the spring when it’s time to plant. When I do have my own land, I imagine I will be starting from scratch. I’ll know just where to find all the information I need to improve the soil.
    I have never grown winter crops, but a hoop house is on my wishlist.

    Reply to mistresseve's comment

  9. Lisa on October 18, 2011 at 10:14 am

    I’ve planted buckwheat successfully in summer in beds that I wanted to give a rest. I grew winter rye in all my beds last fall/winter. It grew really well, could be planted late Oct in my Zone 6, seemed to inhibit weed germination, but had to be meticulously turned over in the spring to prevent regrowth – early March for me – and then I had to wait about 3 weeks before planting. This year I planted oats & crimson clover (some beds just oats, some beds just clover, some beds mixed). Neither seems to be growing in as thickly as winter rye did to out compete sprouting weeds, but I have hopes that both will winter kill and save my back in the spring. :) I plan to experiment with field peas and oats in the asparagus bed next fall and with Dutch white clover undersown with caged tomatoes, peppers, pole beans & broccoli next summer.

    Reply to Lisa's comment

  10. Lisa on October 18, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I live at the top of a mountain without a good windbreak, so my plastic covered low tunnels tore apart and/or blew away. I also found venting more work than expected. The lower and inner Agribon layer held up well, though, and I was able to overwinter kale, mache & spinach after discarding the plastic. I’ve purchase materials to build coldframes, which should hold up better in our wind, but the project is still on our “To Do” list. Another blogger in Zone 6 uses Agribon instead of glass/plexi to cover his cold frames and is able to grow/overwinter some hardy lettuces, asian greens, as well as spinach & kale. I’m going to try this, as Agribon covering doesn’t need to be vented and may not need to be watered either.

    Reply to Lisa's comment

  11. Sincerely, Emily on October 18, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Last year I planted winter rye in some of the beds that weren’t growing winter veg. This winter I will have a few with clover. I would love to read a series about cover crops. I agree, the soil is the most important part to the garden, whether is is vegetable, herbs of other flowers and plants. I keep adding things to the soil to continually improve it. Cover crops are part of that. Emily

    Reply to Sincerely, Emily's comment

  12. Lisa on October 18, 2011 at 10:32 am

    P.S. My outer plastic hoop layer was binder clipped to 10 ft pvc hoops w/a pvc ridge pole. The pvc pipe was buried 12″ on both sides of the bed and the plastic was secured along the ground with boards & rocks. Some of the PVC pipes were lifted out of the ground. (We have a LOT of wind!) The inner Agribon-19 layer, which by mid-December became my outer layer, was clothespinned to #9 guage galvanized metal hoops (~5-6 ft in length) which were pushedinto the ground about 12″ on either side. The row cover was secured along the gound w/boards and rocks. I found the metal hoops easier to install and easier to store.

    Reply to Lisa's comment

  13. MAYBELLINE on October 18, 2011 at 10:33 am

    I would be most interested in the topic.
    Blog on!

    Reply to MAYBELLINE's comment

  14. Traci on October 18, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I, too, would be very interested in hearing about your adventures in cover crops. It is on my to do list of things to learn and experiment with. I may have to invest in that book as well.

    I planted one small raised bed with red clover as I harvest the flowers as a medicinal and had read it was a good cover crop. I got a little lost knowing when and how to turn it under.

    I could really be doing more. I have hard clay soil and I just can’t generate enough compost to cover the amount of things I want to grow. So yes, more on cover crops please.

    Reply to Traci's comment

  15. Donna B. on October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am

    I would also be greatly appreciative for a couple of posts about Cover Crops!
    A section of my backyard, against the fence, was dug up sometime in mid May that happened to be a “Quick! I need a space for my squash/pumpkins!” moment. Sadly I do not use too many garden tools, and I ended up with a two foot wide section about eight feet long that took me a good solid Sunday of hand-pulling grass. Body was exhausted!
    This year? I’m going to [maybe this weekend?] work on getting more areas along the fence dug up and kill the grass with a thick layer of shredded paper… then top it with more soil, and grow a quick-growing cover crop just to smother it for spring. Would that method work?
    [I do need to make my veggie seed purchase for next year… hmmm… might add some cover crops to the list…!]

    Reply to Donna B.'s comment

  16. KimH on October 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I think it’d be great to hear about cover crops. When I had a large garden, I did have winter cover crops and often let an area lay fallow for the year while building it back up, since I had such large areas to garden in.
    A part of me misses those days, another part (mainly my back ;) ) doesnt.. but I too believe that the soil needs tending as deliberately as the plants that come from it.

    In my little backyard sanctuary here, I’ve started letting the leaves lay after I’ve gathered most of them from the patio itself. If they can stay off that, they stay where they fall and let nature take its course, which of course, is feeding the soil creatures & the soil.

    Reply to KimH's comment

  17. WendyM on October 18, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I am eager to learn more about cover crops. I planted winter rye last fall to try to get as much straw but wasn’t near enough. But noticed less weeds in the area where plante dduring the spring and summer. I am trying it again.

    I do however use cowpeas as part of my rotation but serves dual purpose as cover crop/green manure. I happen to enjoy the peas as well. I use various legumes for nitrogen fixation.

    Reply to WendyM's comment

  18. Brenda on October 18, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    I would love to hear more about cover crops and soil improvement. I live in the suburbs but grow a few veggies, I am still learning and better soil is one of my goals xxBrenda

    Reply to Brenda's comment

  19. Vicky on October 19, 2011 at 7:09 am

    I enjoyed this article as I have been gathering some information about it and want to try it. Do you know if herbs would do well? Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply to Vicky's comment


This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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