As we enter the fall here in Vermont there are a few big tasks on my to-do list before putting the gardens to bed for the season: 1) Keep up with harvesting. 2) Plant garlic. 3) Plant cover crop.
I plant a fall cover crop (this year I chose winter rye) on many of our empty beds (having already harvested one-off crops such as cabbage, kohlrabi, potatoes, and carrots from them) for a variety of reasons: to prevent erosion, to reduce the growth of weeds throughout the fall, and to add organic matter (i.e. nutrients) back into the garden beds.
I try to plant cover crop sometime in late August or early September, giving the seeds over a month to germinate and grow before our first frost typically hits, usually in mid-October. The later you plant your cover crop the greater the chance of the crop dying over the winter, as opposed to going dormant. Ideally you want your cover crop to enter this period of dormancy and then resume growth come the spring.
As the spring progresses you’ll want to keep an eye on your cover crop—you’ll definitely want to mow it or cut it down before it begins to produce seed! Leave the plant material to decompose on top of the bed for a week or so, before tilling it in. Wait another week or two and then you’re ready to plant in a nutrient-rich bed!
If you’re interested in learning about specific varieties of cool-season cover crops to plant this fall you can check out this helpful article from Modern Farmer. Alternatively, if you live in a warmer climate that doesn’t have cold and snowy winters like we do in New England, you can check out our Buckwheat Growing Guide to learn about warm-season cover crops. And if you’re interested in learning more about all aspects of cover crops, I recommend SARE’s (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) Cover Crop Topic Room.