Springing Through Fall and Winter With Cover Crops
Plants to Plant Now to Guarantee a Colorful Spring
Reading Time: 3 minutes
By Jennifer Maynard — Cover crops are named because of the role they play in preserving soil health. They cover the ground to reduce exposure and the negative impacts that come with it. This means minimizing sun exposure, wind erosion, heavy rainfall, and even early frost damage.
Unfortunately, too many croppers aren’t thinking about fall and winter crops. Instead, they focus on monocropping — growing a single crop during the peak season and tilling the earth during the offseason to prepare for the next cycle of planting. In the case of a silo crop like wheat, the harvest cycle is eight months, leaving the soil tilled and barren for a quarter of the year.
It’s time for croppers to think about how to put those offseason months to work planting supplementary crops — for the good of the soil and the sustainability of their primary crops in the future. It starts with cover cropping.
What is Cover Cropping?
Cover crops are typically annuals that are hardy enough to survive late into the season and that reemerge early in the spring. As a result, they’re also low-effort crops that don’t need much in the way of tending. Despite this, cover crops and the role they play have huge beneficial prospects for soil and future crops planted in it.
The Benefits of Offseason Cover Cropping
Planting cover crops during the offseason is essential in preserving the nutrient profile of the soil. The benefits of cover cropping are numerous, including:
- Reduced soil erosion. Protection from high winds and heavy rains keeps soil in place and reduces the likelihood that it’s blown away.
- Organic support. As cover crops die off and are allowed to fall back to the soil, they’ll decompose to provide nutrient support to the soil’s microbiome.
- Moisture balance. In addition to protecting soil from the effects of heavy rainfall, cover cropping also prevents the dehydrating effects of sun exposure.
- Weed suppression. Turning to cover crops instead of herbicides is a great way to prevent weed growth naturally in planting beds.
- Pollinator attraction. A diverse breadth of different cover crops will attract pollinators in the springtime and throughout the growing season.
In addition to cover cropping, it should also be noted that leaving fallen leaves for mulch in planting beds is another great way to safeguard the soil.
What to Plant in Fall and Winter to Ensure a Colorful Spring
Fall and winter cover crops are abundant, depending on the region you live in. Most of these plants share low-maintenance characteristics, and it’s best to consider several varieties to bring diversity to the soil microbiome.
Some good examples include the likes of Crimson Clover and Red Clover, as well as White Dutch Clover — all of which are nitrogen fixers and great pollinator attractors. Winter Rye is a great cover crop for releasing phosphorus and potassium back into the soil, and it features an extensive root system that can improve soil structure throughout the winter. You may even consider planting Buckwheat, which dies off with early frosts — however, once dead it provides great organic matter for the soil and can moderate surface temperatures to improve the growth prospects of other cover crops.
The beauty of planting these cover crops in late summer through to early winter is that come spring, many will rebound to bring color to your planting beds. More importantly, they’ll rejuvenate the soil and ready it for mass planting of an industrial or feed crop.
Peripheral Benefits of Cover Cropping
The benefits of cover cropping cannot be understated, and they’re far more widespread than just improving the soil itself. For example, cover cropping during the offseason leaves no room for tilling — a practice responsible for the decline of soil structure. Moreover, it encourages biodiverse soil, promoting healthier crops.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of cover cropping is that it reintroduces some of the baseline practices of regenerative farming. Cover cropping can prevent the need for herbicides, soil injections, and other industrialized practices that have depleted soil. Above all, it creates mindful awareness that soil sustainability is a year-round effort — one that goes beyond support for primary crops.
No matter what you’re planting come spring, support for future yields starts today, with what you’re planting during the offseason. Cover cropping takes minimal effort and offers significant benefits. Start a seasonal cycle of cover cropping this year and reap the positive effects of soil sustainability for years to come.
Originally published in Countryside September/October 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.