By Anna Ackerman
The smell of the garden as the summer season slips into fall is one of my favorite things. The last Zinnias wither on their stems as the temperature cools. Even though it may seem final, the seeds can be saved and replanted in the spring.
Some years we keep the garden going year round, planting fall crops like kale, and then garlic before winter sets in. But everything needs a rest, including the garden soil, and some years we give it a break. The best way we have found to replenish and protect the soil is to plant a cover crop. The summer after we grow a winter cover crop, we notice fewer weeds in our garden and a better harvest. This year, we planted winter rye, a hardy cereal grain. Scarlett, our white rock hen, helped by eating all the grubs and worms my dad dug up as he prepared the soil.
Winter rye germinates quickly. Within a few weeks, the garden will be covered in a lush, green carpet that chokes out irritating weeds. In the spring, we mow it down and then till it under, adding all the nutrients back into the soil. There is a reason it is called “green manure”.
Winter Rye Grass has many benefits:
- The roots of the rye are deep and penetrate easily into the ground, helping to break up heavy clay soil which is common in Kentucky.
- The plant traps nitrogen which is released when it decomposes after being tilled and cut in the spring.
- It is one of the hardiest of the winter cover crops and tolerates a late planting date (which was good for my family this year because we procrastinated and did not plant until late October).
- The rye germinates easily and can grow at very low temperatures and only goes dormant if there is a hard freeze
There are several good options for cover crops in Kentucky. You can read more about them here.