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Naked garden soil is not cool: Keep it covered this winter

Plant and animal existence depends on healthy, functioning soils but humans too often treat it like dirt. We can improve soil health in gardens and on farms by:

  1. limiting soil disturbance (tillage)
  2. planting a diversity of plant species
  3. keeping soil covered throughout the year

These practices reduce erosion and nutrient run-off, build organic matter, and increase carbon storage in soils which helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

Leaf Cover

A thick layer of leaves (preferably run over with a mulching mower) is a terrific winter cover for small vegetable and flower beds. Bags of leaves from your yard or from neighbors’ yards are plentiful this time of year and allow us to sustainably recycle nutrients.

Whole leaves protect soil and garlic plants.

Try a Living Cover This Fall

We’ve had a number of relatively warm falls in recent years and can expect a continuing lengthening of the growing season as a result of global warming. We are past the recommended best date for sowing winter cover crops in Maryland. However, if you live in Central or Southern Maryland or on the Eastern Shore I think you can risk sowing winter rye or winter wheat with a legume, either crimson clover or hairy vetch, through the end of October. The soil and air temperatures should remain sufficiently high for germination and root establishment.

Planting cover crops in September is preferable because the root systems have more time to grow and pull up nutrients from fertilizers and organic matter in the soil that might otherwise be lost through leaching and run-off.

A cover crop mix of winter rye, crimson clover, forage radish, and hairy vetch two weeks after early fall sowing. Researchers have found that soils are most benefited by planting two or more cover crop species.
Seeds vary in size and shape. When sowing multiple cover crop species by hand it’s best to mix seed with compost prior to sowing to ensure more even seed distribution. If you’re using a spin seeder, sow like-size seeds at the same time. Winter rye seed is quite large and would be applied separately with a spin seeder.

More specific information on growing cover crops:

Example of a spin seeder with a zippered bag. Wear it around your shoulder and crank the handle to spin broadcast the seed. You can change the size of the opening at the bottom of the bag to accommodate different seed sizes. This is a nice option (around $40) for medium to large-size gardens.

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

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