You’ve picked the last of your tomatoes, or you soon will. Your cucumbers and snap beans gave out weeks ago. Your garden looked so abundant at the height of the summer (I hope you took pictures) and you were the talk of the neighborhood. Now, however, things are not so pretty. It doesn’t have to be that way. Harvest the spent crops in those beds and feed them to your compost pile. Then plant cover crops. In no time, your garden will be green and lush again. You might even put in some transplants of kale and collards under a row cover so you have fresh greens to eat through the winter. You can see that in the photo. The rest of that bed is planted to multiplier (potato) onions and garlic. Those alliums don’t need to be planted here in Zone 7 until mid-October. Of course, they will be there until June, so plan accordingly. The greens in the row tunnel will bolt in March, putting out flowering stalks, then going to seed. The flowers will attract beneficial insects, and if you want the seeds and don’t need the space, let them do their thing. If you aren’t looking to save seeds and you have other things to attract the good bugs in the spring, you could take out the winter greens in late March and put in something that would benefit from the cover that is already there.
Most likely, you have more garden space than will be taken up by greens, onions and garlic. In those spaces you will want to plant a cover crop. For that you need a plan so you know just what is going on in each bed next year. It makes a difference in what crop you plant there now. I remember a conversation a few years ago with someone, and she wanted me to tell her what cover crop she should plant over all her garden. I couldn’t do that because she couldn’t tell me what she wanted to plant there the next year. I propose managing your garden with hand tools and farming smarter, not harder. If you understand the natural cycle of growth, you can plan to grow your food within that cycle. Fitting your crops—and yourself—into the natural rhythm of things is what works best. Otherwise, just throw out some rye and vetch in the fall and till it in the spring. You don’t need me for that.
In the beds that you will plant earliest in the spring, you will want that space to be open then. That means the cover crop must have winterkilled. In order to have enough biomass for it to feed your soil, that cover crop needed to be planted in late August or early September here in Zone 7. In the photo, you can see a nice crop of oats that have winterkilled. That brown biomass can be easily pulled away and the bed amended and planted. You can see that in my video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. That DVD shows me in the garden each month from March to November, except August, managing crops grown to feed the soil. Some of those crops also feed us.
Oilseed, fodder or Daikon radish is another choice for a winterkilled crop. You can harvest some of those radishes for your table until about January 1. After that, hopefully it will winterkill. Lately, you can never tell what the weather will be. Last year many crops that were expected to winterkill didn’t, but in a “normal” year here in Zone 7, oats and radish are my suggestions. If the area is protected, a crop might not die back as expected, even if we have a good winter. I discovered the sheltering effect of a compost pile one year when I had planted oats on a bed just south of the compost bed. (My compost is on a garden bed and is part of my rotation plan.) Any crop I had expected to winterkill did, except for those oats in front of the compost pile. That would be a good place to put winter greens, I suppose.
Choices for the rest of your garden that doesn’t need to be planted until later in the spring include crimson clover, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, and cereal rye. You can learn more about that at Homeplace Earth. If this is all too much, take a step back, breathe deeply, and know everything will be okay if you don’t plant cover crops this fall. What you can do is cover all your beds with leaves as a mulch. The worms will work on them and in the spring you will notice a layer of compost they have left for you between the leaves and the soil. Pull the leaves off a couple weeks before you need each bed, to allow the soil to warm up. The leaves can then become the mulch in your garden paths. Over the winter, take time to learn more about cover crops, work them into your garden plan, and order the seeds for the whole year. Next year this time, you will be on top of things with fall cover crop planting. I’ll be speaking about cover crops and more at the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs this weekend, September 21-23, 2012. Come and see me!