Trials Update: Preparing Beds for Winter
Heather Jerrett - High Mowing Organic Seeds' Trials Manager
in Vermont! In the High Mowing Organic Seeds trial gardens, it’s a time
when all of our warm season summer crops like melons, cucumbers,
zucchini, eggplants and peppers are coming to an end and the late season
crops like pumpkins, winter squash, gourds, leeks and onions are just
around the corner. This year in Wolcott, it seemed like an endless
summer, with day after day of hot, sunny weather. We were able to
evaluate crops like melons, tomatoes and peppers with gusto, when
usually we are lucky to see which ones will actually produce in our
northern climate. The melon taste test spoiled our taste buds with
sugary goodness, making us turn up our noses at anything less than
As we move into the autumn season we are turning in finished
crops and preparing our fields for winter rest. There are many ways to
prepare your garden or farm for the winter and for the following season,
and many factors that affect what you need to do. In our trial gardens,
once we are finished with a crop we disc it into the soil with our
tractor and plant a cover crop. When the soil is warm, plant material
can still break down easily and plant debris will not over-winter in the
soil. If it is later in the season and the weather is cool, the plants
may not be able to break down in the soil. In this case we pull the
plants and incorporate them into the compost pile. We do not want plant
debris to remain in the fields over the winter because if there is any
disease on the plant material it may over-winter and inoculate the
garden the following year. With this in mind, it is also good practice
to turn your compost pile in order to make sure all plant material is
breaking down. This is especially important concerning potatoes and late
blight. The disease can only persist on living plant material. Dormant
potato tubers, if left in the ground, become an excellent host and
inoculum the next season.
Cover Crops We Use and Why
In our trial gardens, we use a number of cover crops for various reasons:
When we remove summer crops we plant a mix of peas and oats.
We use this mix in between wide rows as well. The oats act as a trellis
for the peas. When oats begin to flower we mow down or incorporate them
into the soil.
- To cover bare ground left by crops that come out in the middle of the season, we use buckwheat.
We choose buckwheat for this slot because there is not enough time for
peas and oats to be as productive as we would like before the end of the
season. Buckwheat also serves as a great smother crop for weeds and
pulls minerals out of the soil for future uptake by plants.
- Later in the season – August and September – we use winter rye.
Winter rye is an excellent crop for over-wintering. Because it is a
perennial and will begin to grow again in the spring, it is important to
allow enough time for the crop to re-grow in spring and then
incorporate before planting. For this reason, we do not use winter rye
where any very early season crops are to be planted the following year
(like onions, leeks and spring greens).
Choosing The Right Cover Crop
Choosing the right cover crop for the time of year and for
your specific crop rotation is important. There are essentially three
types of cover crop available: grains, green manures and legumes. Each
of these types essentially provide cover for your soil but can also be
used for specific purposes.
- Grains are crops that produce large seeds that are also commonly used for food. Some common examples of grains are oats, winter rye, and buckwheat.
As a cover crop, they are used as a green manure and are not left to go
to seed. Their main purpose is to cover the ground, provide structural
support for other cover crops and add organic material to the soil in
the form of cellulose that can then be broken down.
- Green manures
are crops that are grown specifically to replenish organic matter in
the soil. Nutrients are released into the topsoil as they decompose.
Most grow quickly and break down easily to allow nutrients to be
captured for crop production. Many green manures work well as mixes with
grains and legumes. Some common examples of green manures are Annual Ryegrass, mustard, radish, and millet.
are plants that provide nitrogen through Rhizobia bacteria that have a
symbiotic relationship with the plants, feeding on the roots while
supply nitrogen to the plant. Common examples of leguminous cover crops
are vetch, alfalfa, field peas, and clovers.
For more information about cover cropping or winterizing your garden check out these helpful links: