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Winter Gardening or Cover Crops

October 18th, 2011

If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know that the last couple years I’ve been experimenting with winter gardening. Growing spinach and other hardy greens in a hoop house over the cold winter months here in NE Ohio.

I do have a few small sections of the garden planted with some greens for a late winter harvest, but this year I’m focusing more on improving the soil. I do have garlic, perennial leeks, shallots and potato onions overwintering in one area of the garden. There are also three small squares of spinach and arugula and a few kale plants in the back raised bed, along with a few leeks left here and there.

The soil here at Chiot’s Run is very lean, as a result I decided to devote part of the garden each season to growing cover crops instead of vegetables. Of course some cover crops are edible, but I want to be able to add as much organic matter to the soil as possible, so I won’t be harvesting much if any of the cover crops.

Part of the garden was planted in mustard over a month ago. Mustard will winter kill. The remainder is planted in Fall Green manure mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, that will survive through the winter and come up early next spring.

The areas without cover crops have been spread with a partly composted chicken manure from the local farm and covered with straw. This manure will compost down over the winter and earth worms will help work it down into the soil. Next spring I should have much better soil because of my efforts this fall. It will take many years of this to develop into a deep rich loam, but I’m a patient gardener. I do believe that gardeners really are growing soil and not plants. That should be our focus. We can’t forget that it starts with the soil, without it we would have nothing.

I just purchased the book Managing Cover Crops Profitably and I have found it to be a wonderful resource for cover crop information. I’ve only looked up a few things and I already know it will come in very handy. This winter, I hope to have time to write up a series for this blog about using cover crops in the home garden with information gleaned from this book an other sources.

Do you plant cover crops in your garden? Would you be interested in a series on cover crops here on Chiot’s Run?

Cover Crops – Not Just for Farmers

May 17th, 2011

Over the past couple years I’ve been experimenting with cover crops in my garden. So far I’ve planted: crimson clover, hairy vetch, winter rye, buckwheat, fall cover crop mix, spring cover crop mix and various other legumes. Cover crops play a variety of roles in your garden. Use them to protect soil during the winter, they prevent erosion while improving it. They can also help control nematodes and mitigate other soil issues. They work beautifully as a suppression crop on a newly made garden keeping the weeds at bay.


Crimson clover is my favorite, it’s a beautiful cover crop. The first time it bloomed in my garden 2 years ago I knew I’d be using it for years to come. It grows quickly, smothers weeds and brings up nutrients for future crops – all this while looking fabulous!


This past winter I experimented with an overwintering cover crop mix. It contained: winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover. It started growing last fall and reached a height of about 6 inches. Throughout the winter it went dormant and protected the soil. This spring as soon as it warmed up slightly the rye started growing. Soon enough the vetch joined in and before long it was almost 4 feet tall.

I chopped it down last week as the vetch was just beginning to bloom. Using pruners, I cut it down in 6-8 inch segments and then went to work digging it into the soil. Before long my neighbor came over inquiring if I was wanting to work up the soil.  He’d just purchased a new toy and was itching to use it.  A few minutes he returned with his new tiller and starting working the cover crop into the soil.  Mr Chiots came out and did the rest while I chatted with our neighbor.

I source my cover crop seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They have a great selection of single crops and mixtures, just about everything you’ll ever need. Here’s a great chart from them to help you chose the right crop for your application (click on the image to view larger, readable version that you can save if you want to).

It’s quite amazing the difference a cover crop will make when it comes to improving the soil. It takes patience because you have to wait for it to grow, buy it’s certainly an inexpensive way to amend large areas of soil. I’m looking forward to trying a few other varieties. I currently have mustard seeds and I’m looking forward to trying a turnip as well. Now that I have a new large garden they’ll come in handy for smothering weeds on the newly cleared land and they’ll improve the soil in the process so it will be ready when it comes time to grow vegetables!

Do you ever use cover crops in your garden?

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This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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