Winterize vegetable gardens with a cover crop

By Sara Creamer - Master Gardener Coordinator

Even though fall is officially here, it is not time to quit working in the vegetable garden. Putting in some effort to prepare the garden for winter will save you some time in the busy spring season. Now is the time to winterize your engines, clean and store your tools, drain hoses, remove debris from the garden, plan crop rotation, and get a soil test if it has not been done in a couple of years. It is also time to plant a cover crop.

A cover crop is a crop planted to protect and improve your soil. A winter cover crop helps prevent soil erosion and nutrient leaching, reduces weeds, adds soil organic matter (SOM), and can encourage beneficial insects. Some cover crops also provide nitrogen by fixing it in their roots. Other crops are good at taking up excess nitrogen in the soil and accumulating it in plant tissue (referred to as nitrogen scavenging).

Good cover crops establish quickly, compete with the weeds, develop large root systems, have enough top growth to provide biomass (material to be incorporated into the soil in the spring), inexpensive and available, low maintenance, and should not be invasive.

There are four generally used cover crop types: grains and grasses like barley, oats, ryegrass, and cereal rye; legumes (plants in the bean family) such as peas, vetch, clover, and alfalfa; brassicas (the mustard family) including oilseed radish, turnips, and Ethiopian cabbage; and broadleaf crops such as sunflower, flax, phacelia, and buckwheat.

With all these choices, how do you pick a cover crop? Because you are going into winter with this cover crop, cool season crops are the way to go. They should be planted in September through early October in time to allow them to grow and establish before winter.

Some cover crops will be killed by the winter and the residue will remain to protect the soil and be ready to incorporate into the garden in the spring. They are good for areas of the garden where early spring crops such as peas, greens, and radishes will be planted.

There are cover crops that will resume growth in the spring. These can still be incorporated into the garden but provide protection longer into the growing season. These would be good for areas of the garden where warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers will be planted.

Typically, a grass or grain combined with a legume makes a good cover crop for a vegetable garden. The grass or grain germinates quickly and provides protection until the legume germinates. Do not fertilize a legume crop since that will interfere with nitrogen fixation. Legumes need a specific soil bacteria (Rhizobia) to colonize the roots in order to fix nitrogen. Anyone that has grown spring peas will have used this inoculum and knows that fresh is required.

Like any crop, in order to achieve good germination and establish properly, the seed must be in good contact with the soil, be lightly incorporated, and receive adequate water.

Your local extension office should be able to help you with resources to find seed and to plant a cover crop in your vegetable garden. The following links will also provide some resources:, and

A cover crop is a good way to help with winterizing your garden. Your mother always told you to wear a hat in winter. Your garden should wear a cover crop.

Training Class

A Fayette County Master Gardener training class will be taught beginning in January 2017.

Classes will be held on Mondays, Tuesdays, and three Saturdays through March. Interns receive 50 hours of intensive instruction on horticulture topics. Topics include (but are not limited to) botany, soils and fertilizers, entomology (insects), herbaceous plants, disease diagnosis, vegetable and fruit production, phenology, and wildlife management.

Interns then volunteer their time assisting with educational programs and activities through their local OSU Extension County office. For more information on becoming a Master Gardener through the 2017 training class contact: Sara Creamer 740-335-1150 or email her at [email protected] Come join our team.

By Sara Creamer

Master Gardener Coordinator