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Prepare your soil for winter with these crops

Have you ever thought of using cover crops to overwinter your garden? Cover crops are plants that are planted to cover the soil for benefits besides that of harvesting. It can be an inexpensive way to help with garden soil during your off-harvesting seasons.

They can be planted before or after harvesting your vegetable crops. There are many varieties of crops and many fall into these three categories — legumes, grass and brassicas.

Most are established with little effort. Some will be killed by winter temperatures and provide a nice mat over the soil surface.

Some of the benefits that can be reaped by growing cover crops is they can improve your soil and be a good source of organic matter, the roots also can capture excess nutrients that would be lost, they help break soil compaction, reduce water and wind erosion and crusting, and they can suppress weeds, insects and disease or even attract beneficial insects.

This will be my first year experimenting with mustard cover crops. Some of its benefits are to prevent erosion, suppress weeds and soil borne pests and help with soil compaction. They suppress weeds in the fall with their quick growth and in the spring residues can inhibit small annual weeds.

Mustards fall into the brassica family and are sensitive to freezing and will winter kill. So they are also used as a spring / summer crop. It should be chopped or mowed prior to or at its flowering and mixed into moist soil while it is still green. If it seeds, it can become a pest in the upcoming crop.

There is increased interest in this alternative cover crop and there are reports of many benefits such as disease suppression and crop root-health. You can read more about this at go.osu.edu/mu stardcover.

There are dozens of different crops to consider for your home garden. You need to know when to plant and when and how to till or mow down before you plant your seeds intended for harvesting. There can be hindrances by not following recommendations. You don’t want prolific reseeding or detriment to future crops.

Some require high management and others have little management involved. Some also are susceptible to attracting pests or disease. Some characteristics for selecting what cover crop to grow include life cycle, seeding date and rate, winter hardiness, nitrogen fixation and cost. There is no single cover crop or system that will provide all these benefits.

Each cover crop species has its own special attributes, benefits and disadvantages. A good understanding of crop selections and management is needed.

To see a more in depth overview of the different cover crops see the Ohio fact sheet Sustainable Crop Rotations with Cover Cropsat go.osu.edu/morecover.

Duda is an Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

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