For the first time in my gardening life, I have managed t clean out the vegetable beds BEFORE the snow started to fall. Which leaves me with an interesting dilemma. What do I do with the beds since there are no dead plants and overly hardy weeds growing in them?
My neighbor says that I should do what she does and cover the beds with clear plastic. I am not so certain about this as I had one of my beds like this for the whole summer in an attempt to solarize the bed. I think all I managed to do was provide a decent greenhouse for super weeds like Canada Thistle and Creeping Charlie. The plastic grew brittle and broke in the sun/rain/cold/drought merry-go-round of a climate we have here.
I could just le it lay fallow. It is a time honored tradition after all. I watched for two decades as the farmers where I grew up followed a plant/fallow/till rotation year after year. But, since I went through the trouble of actually getting the beds clear, I feel like I should be doing something.
And so now I am contemplating cover crops. This fine bit of alliteration is causing more trouble than it needs to. The problem is, what exactly do I plant for a cover crop? The choices are surprisingly dizzying. Rye, winter wheat, clover, hairy vetch and dozens more are available.
The first place I need to start is nitrogen fixing vs. nitrogen using.
Legume cover crops pull nitrogen out of the air and put it into the ground. This is called nitrogen fixing. The cover crops in this group include clovers, hairy vetch, winter peas and alfalfa. These cover crops can help enrich the soil by adding nitrogen to the soil, which is a vital nutrient that plants need to grow.
Non-nitrogen fixing plants include rye, oats, winter wheat, and buck wheat. These don’t add much to the soil while they are growing but they do help to encourage good soil by preventing erosion and keeping the soil from compacting itself.
I am most interested in the nitrogen fixing kind, so I will stick with those.
Cover crops as a whole was a practice that fell out of favor with the invention of fertilizer. I don’t know if you know this, but fertilizer was literally invented because scientists feared that the planet would be unable to feed themselves based on the then current levels of nitrogen fixed in the soil. Fertilizer does put nitrogen back in the soil more quickly and less expensively than cover crops, but as I am a hobby gardener, the economic and time gains are insignificant. Not to mention that cover crops are just nicer for the environment.
Visiting one of my favorite seed purveyors, I see that in the nitrogen fixing side of cover crops they have Austrian Winter Peas, Crimson Clover, Hairy Vetch, Ladino Clover, Lespedeza and Red Clover. The more I think of it, the clover is probably a bad idea. After all, the rest of the year I consider this plant a weed in my beds and lawn. I imagine that it works like vampires. Once you invite them in, they cause all sorts of harm and won’t leave until you put a stake through their heart. And as I do not know where the heart of a clover is, best not to invite them in.
That leaves me with Austrian Winter Peas, Hairy Vetch and Lespedeza. I am intrigued by the sellers promise that Lespedeza will turn poor soil good, like some kind of cover crop evangelical minister but closer inspection shows that this cover crop does not do well in drought. Since I never know when Cleveland will decide that it is a good time to drought, I will avoid it. Hairy Vetch just sounds like something my kids will be putting on as part of a Halloween costume. So, that leaves me with Austrian Winter Peas.
So we will see how it goes. I will see if I will be contemplating cover crops again next year or not.