How to take down cover crops

Did you plant cover crops in the fall? If so, this post is for you. Now is the time to get those crops into the soil so the nutrients can break down and decompose before you need to plant seeds, in 5 weeks!!

Skip ahead if you have cover crops and want to know what you need to do now.

Why plant cover crops? Cover crops are plants that are grown through the fall and winter to protect your soil and hopefully improve it for the next season. However, they can be controversial. In a backyard garden there is minimal garden space and cover crops may compromise your fall harvest. You may have to remove fall plants pre maturely in order to plant cover crop seeds. There is also a chance that the cover crops will not decompose in time to plant your spring garden. This timeline can be a challenge. I decided to try growing cover crops this year to learn something new. At a minimum, they have already helped to protect my bare soil from erosion and possible leaching of nutrients from the rains.  You can learn more about cover crops in the post, How to put your garden to bed.

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What to do with cover crops now:

  1. Start by chopping down the crop. Use grass shears to trim the crops down.dsc_0106
  2. Use a shovel to lift the crop out of the soil and turn it over into the soil.dsc_0109
  3. Cover with compost. I’m not sure this step is completely necessary. However, I have a compost bin that is full and it never hurts to add more nutrients to build soil. dsc_0112
  4. Finally, cover with burlap so that the crops can break down faster. The burlap allows air and water penetration but keeps it dark, enabling the ecosystem to work harder and faster to decompose the crops. I picked up free burlap coffee bags from my local coffee shop. I cut them down the edge so that they lie flat as sheets of burlap. dsc_0115

Now I hope that these crops decompose in time for planting my seeds in just 5 to 6 weeks!

Other uses for Burlap in the garden:

  • Mulching
  • Protecting the soil during the winter
  • To improve germination rates
  • Coffee bean burlap sacks can be used as planters

What do you use burlap for in the garden?

I’ll report back in a few weeks to let you know if the cover crops decomposed in time for planting my spring garden.

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How to put your garden to bed

Just last weekend, I had the opportunity to take my very first Seattle Tilth veggie gardening class. It was awesome! It really hit me that I truly love gardening, actually love it so much that I get amped up talking about the soil ecosystem. I know I’m excited about something when I actually arrive early, and it did not disappoint.img_5862

I chose to take this class “Put Your Garden to Bed” because I always struggle with actually knowing when to call it quits and how to make the most of my garden during the winter. This class provided a plethora of knowledge, but to keep it simple, check out my key takeaways specific to a garden in the Pacific Northwest.

Soil is everything. I have said it before and I will say it again and again, the health of the soil ecosystem directly correlates to the health of the plants. Healthy soil is full of organisms that convert organic matter and compost into nutrients for plants. It is important to continue to build this ecosystem in the winter months. All of the takeaways listed below are recommended with the end goal of maintaining and building healthy soil through the winter months.

Remove warm season crops, keep cool season crops. This was my biggest question going into the class, which vegetables do I need to finish harvesting and remove and which ones can I continue to grow through the winter months?dsc_0025

  • Remove: warm season crops such as beans, tomatoes, squash, peas, basil, peppers, cucumbers, celery, and onions. These need to be harvested and removed as soon as possible in order to seed a cover crop, garlic, and/or shallots.
  • Keep: cool season crops such as kale, lettuce, leeks, beets, and carrots. These are much easier to keep if you protect with floating row cover or a hoop house + row cover. Also, it is important to continue to harvest these cool season crops and not let them sit in the dirt the entire winter as they could rot due to the increased wetness.

Remove any plants that have disease. If you have a plant with a disease, you need to completely move this plant off site. If you live in the PNW, this means to put it into yard waste and not a compost pile. Take it off the property.

Plant a cover crop. This is the money maker! Remember how “soil is everything”? Cover crops not only protect the soil from the impact of the rain, but they inject organic matter and nutrients into the soil, while also hosting a bacterial ecosystem during months when this can become dormant. The best part, cover crops are so easy to plant!

Like anything, there are a million different types of cover crops for different goals, check out this list. However, to keep it simple, just find a soil builder mix, basically a blend of cover crops, and sprinkle this on your soil. Cover with some dirt, water, and let it grow.

dsc_0035About 4 weeks before you plant your spring vegetable seeds, you need to chop back the cover crops and put them into the soil. Basically, use a shovel to chop them up and turn them into the soil. If possible, cover with a burlap sack so that the cover crops compost faster, injecting an abundance of organic matter and nutrients into the soil. Yay!

Plant garlic, shallots, and fava beans. You can grow a few vegetables in the winter months. You need to get these in the ground now. Check out this post about planting garlic.

Mulch. Your warm season and diseased crops have been removed, your cover crop and garlic, shallots, and/or fava beans are planted. Now, you can add mulch to help keep soil temperatures a little warmer. There are several types of mulch, learn more here. I plan to use straw to protect my cool season crop and garlic. you do not need to use mulch on the cover crops. dsc_0027

There you have it, your checklist for wrapping up the garden season and making the most of your garden during the winter months. It is best to do all of this now, in the month of October. So get to it!

My last takeaway – take a class at Seattle Tilth. From veggie gardening to composting 101 to making herbal salves, there is something for everyone. It is always a good time to learn and try something new.

Check out this Crimson Clover cover crop sprouting between tomato plants. dsc_0032