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Vermont Garden Journal: Cover Crops Prevent Erosion And Build Fertility In Your Soil

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Hairy vetch is a winter hardy cover crop that grows strong in fall and becomes dormant in winter.

One practice I try to do in my garden is never let the soil stay bare. Each year as I remove vegetables such as garlic, beans, and lettuce, I cover crop those areas. Covering the soil with plant material prevents erosion and builds up the fertility and workability of your soil.

One question I often get about cover crops is from no-till gardeners. These are gardeners that don't till the garden, leaving the soil structure in place for the betterment of the plants. How can they grow cover crops that need turning under in spring and still be no-till? The answer is to grow cover crops now that grow strong in fall, but naturally die off in winter from the cold such as field peas, radishes and oats. That way you'll only have dead plant material on top of your beds in spring to lightly work into the soil.

The other type of cover crop is winter hardy. These grow strong all fall, become dormant in winter, and start growing again in spring. They include hairy vetch, clover, winter rye and winter wheat. These often need tilling since the biomass in spring can be quite challenging to turn under. I often mow down these cover crops before working them into the soil.

With either method sow a mix of grains and legumes. The grains will help store the nitrogen from the legumes in the soil, keeping it available for vegetable plants, sometimes for years.

Remove the spent cover crops now and sow non-hardy winter cover crops as soon as possible. Winter hardy cover crops can germinate and grow in colder soils, so you have a little more time. Prepare the seed bed removing debris, loosen the soil and broadcast the cover crop blend. Cover the seeds lightly with more soil and water if dry.

Now for this week's tip: pinch back the tips of watermelon and cantaloupe vines now to send more energy into maturing the existing melons and less into forming new fruits.

Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden writer, radio and TV show host, consultant, and speaker. Charlie is the host of All Things Gardening on Sunday mornings at 9:35 during Weekend Edition on Vermont Public. Charlie is a guest on Vermont Public's Vermont Edition during the growing season. He also offers garden tips on local television and is a frequent guest on national programs.
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