The growing season is beginning to wind down for our main season crops, but it is not time to quit for the season! Now, you might be tired by this time in the season and feel that you already have more than enough food from your garden preserved for the winter, but I believe that the extra push now to plant some fall greens and prepare your garden for the winter will be well worth the effort.  Every season that I have worked with Grow Appalachia, new families experiment with fall gardening and the use of simple season extension strategies, such as row covers. It is exciting to see fresh food long after summer has faded to fall.

Row Covers in use at PMSS during Fall 2009
Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky, the publication by UK Extension, gives the planting dates for fall crops on page 15. Another wonderful resource is the Fall gardening guide that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange puts out. Their list includes varieties that are especially suited to fall gardening and lets you know down to what temperature each plant can manage. While Southern Exposure is located in central Virginia, our average first frost date is the same as theirs (October 15) and the planting dates should be similar.   
It’s not too late to plant radishes! Look at these beauties Kathleen grew this spring.
This time of the year is also the time to start preparing your garden for the off season. If you aren’t planting a fall garden, or are only using part of your plot for fall crops, it is time to start cleaning the garden. It is important to remove spent plant debris and weeds from the garden area. Removing weeds before they go to seed prevents more weed seed from being added to the plot. Leaving old plants in the garden leaves habitat for insect pests to overwinter and can contribute to fungal diseases if the plants have been infected. Plants that are bug ridden or diseased should be hauled off in the trash or burned – NOT COMPOSTED.

Once your garden is “clean”, it is time to prepare for next year! Planting a cover crop is one of the best ways to improve your garden for next season. I am huge fan of cover crops, and each year more of the families in the PMSS Grow Appalachia project become fans as well. Last season I posted about cover crops  and Jessica at BDVP has also sung their praises . Many plants can be used as a cover crop, as you can read in my post from last season, but the three I have used the most with Grow Appalachia are Crimson Clover, Rye, and Buckwheat.

Crimson Clover and Field Peas used as a Cover Crop in a PMSS Grow Appalachia garden. Look at those legumes fixing nitrogen!
Crimson Clover: Can kill weeds if planted in early fall, especially if it is planted with oats or rye. Clover is great at increasing the nitrogen content of your soil. Crimson clover grows fast in cool fall and spring weather. Mow down the clover and turn under after flowering (nitrogen fixation occurs then).  Crop seeding rate is 1 lb per 1000ft² broadcast. Or mix 1/3 clover and 2/3 rye or oats and broadcast.

Winter Rye: Rye is a cold tolerant and can germinate in soil as cool as 34-40° F, making it a major fall-planted cover crop. Rye has a well-developed fibrous root system that reduces leaching of soil nitrogen. Plant in September through mid-October.  Broadcast  3-4 lbs per 1000ft². The later in the season you plant rye, the more seed you will need to plant. You may want to broadcast with clover.

Buckwheat: Buckwheat’s rapid growth smothers most weeds.   Buckwheat fits into the “green manure” category of cover crops because of its rapid breakdown which releases nutrients for the succeeding crop and fits into a tight vegetable rotation, such as when a crop is harvested prior to mid-July and a succeeding crop is not scheduled until fall. Buckwheat will be killed by winter weather and is usually not planted as a fall cover crop, but during the summer months to improve soil. The breakdown of buckwheat improves soil structure and moisture holding capacity. If volunteer buckwheat is harmful in the succeeding crop, then the green manure crop of buckwheat should be destroyed before a large number of seeds mature. Buckwheat will germinate at temperatures ranging from 45° to 105°F. Broadcast 2 lbs per 1000ft².

Buckwheat blooming at PMSS during summer 2010

Some of the benefits of cover cropping include:

  1. Improve soil quality: When the soil is allowed to lay bare during the traditional non-gardening months the soil surface seals together and water runs off during rains. Cover crops prevent this sealing of the earth and improve the soil structure. The root establishment over the winter months improves air and water infiltration into the soil, as does the decomposition of the organic matter after it is turned under. Earthworms and other soil organisms also thrive while the plants are decomposing.
  2. Erosion Control: Cover crops hold the soil in place during the late fall, winter, and early spring thus reducing erosion due to wind and water coming into contact with the bare earth.
  3. Increase soil fertility: Legume cover crops add nitrogen to the soil from the atmosphere due to their associations with nitrogen fixing bacteria. Non-legume cover crops can recycle excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from the previous crop to the following crop. Why not try this instead of using the synthetic N-P-K fertilizer next spring?! When cover crops are turned under and allowed to decompose they slowly release the nutrients that they have taken up. This will add some micro nutrients not usually added to the soil through traditional fertilization plans.
  4. Suppress weeds: A dense stand of cover crop will reduce the amount of weeds that germinate in the fall due to shading. Some cover crops also release chemicals into the soil that will suppress other plants (weeds).
  5. Insect control: Beneficial insects may be attracted to cover crops plantings, such as lady beetles or ground beetles that eat pest insects. Flowering cover crops will also attract beneficial insects
  6. Subdue soil diseases and pests: Cover crops support beneficial soil microbes that can work against soil diseases and pests. Some cover crops may also produce compounds that suppress these problems.