Winter is officially here and those summer vegetable gardeners are now a (hopefully) fond memory. What to do with all the empty garden space?
Of course, there are always winter vegetables such as lettuce, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and other cooking greens. Peas and fava beans are also big favorites at home. The shorter days in winter bring fewer hours of full sun, so conservatories tend to grow less vigorously. Another problem we have encountered is excessive shade from our house that is thrown over the garden due to the sun being lower in the sky.
Instead of struggling with a full garden of winter vegetables, consider growing a cover crop in the empty spaces. Seeds for clover, ryegrass, buckwheat, oats, vetch or beans can be purchased at a farm shop or your local garden center. Sometimes called “green manure” or “living soil”, these cover crops can benefit your garden in several ways.
When sown heavily, these plants can effectively suffocate most weeds, which tend to appear throughout the rainy season.
They can also prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss due to occasional heavy rainfall. The foliage softens the effects of rain and the dense roots hold the soil in place.
Some cover crops tend to root quite deep. Grass can send their roots over 10 feet deep, and clover roots can penetrate between 5 and 8 feet deep. Once the cover is cut down in the spring, the roots decay into place, leaving microchannels in the soil. This not only enriches the soil but also improves its drainage and texture.
Nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as clover, vetch and beans can increase the soil’s available nitrogen.
These cover crops can also be planted among winter vegetables to provide “live bark chips”. Alyssum (“blanket of snow”) is a particularly attractive companion to kale. It also attracts beneficial insects and pollinators.
To get the most out of your cover crop, cut it down just before it blooms. At this point, all the nutrients go into the flowers to make seeds. If you let it set seeds, it will spread throughout your garden and it will become a weed problem. If you can not bear to cut the beautiful flowers down, at least cut them before it sets seeds!
Once the cover crop has been beaten down, place the cuttings in your compost pile so you do not lose any of these nutrients. The remaining cut plants can be left to rot in the soil or worked in the soil. The root nodules of nitrogen-fixing plants will release usable nitrogen into the soil when the plant dies.
Do you have questions? Email email@example.com.
Are you looking for more garden tips? How to contact the Master Gardener program in your area.
Los Angeles County
firstname.lastname@example.org; 626-586-1988; http://celosangeles.ucanr.edu/UC_Master_Gardener_Program/
email@example.com; 949-809-9760; http://mgorange.ucanr.edu/
firstname.lastname@example.org; 951-683-6491 locally. 231; https://ucanr.edu/sites/RiversideMG/
San Bernardino County
email@example.com; 909-387-2182; http://mgsb.ucanr.edu/