Starting A Vegetable Garden
A good vegetable garden requires regular maintenance. Vegetables will not wait until it’s convenient to water them or pull weeds.
When choosing vegetables, peruse seed catalogs and retailer websites to learn about the varieties that grow best in your zone. You may decide to plant seeds or buy plug plants that can be planted directly. Identify your site and soil type, as the ideal soil is loamy with the right mix of clay, sand and silt.
While farmers plant millions acres of plants like rye and clover to boost soil health and crowd out weeds, a cover crop does the same thing in the smallest home garden.
With cover crops, a vegetable garden doesn’t have to end with the first hard frost — no greenhouse required.
Devin Barto plants cover crops on five acres at Fifth Month Farm in Mount Joy. He shared tips for easy cover crops for home gardeners at Penn State Master Gardener state conference in September 2022. (September is prime cover crop time.)
Barto’s mantra was simple: just try it and see what happens.
What to plant
Cover crops add carbon and biomass, feed microbes and pollinators, keep weeds away and prevent erosion.
– One category, legumes such as peas and clovers, also pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and send it into soil.
– Clovers, including crimson and red, are versatile and easy to remove. Crimson clover’s particularly beautiful when it blooms in mid-April, Barto says. While many cover crops are planted as summer fades to fall, clovers can be planted under taller vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes. After the vegetable plants are removed, the clover will have a head start for the cool season. This also works with kale and cabbage plants.
– Grasses like rye and wheat will increase soil’s organic matter and control weeds. When cut, the tall grass also can be used as mulch. However, grass plants can be more difficult to remove so they should be pulled in April when still small, Barto says. Also, young winter rye has allelopathic properties so check the timing of planting later crops to prevent any issues.
– Oats die after freezing temperature, so they’re not as hard to remove as other grasses. The roots left behind also boost soil structure.
– Austrian winter peas don’t die over winter. The pea greens are tasty, perfect for a winter salad, Barto says. Field peas will die in the winter but still fix nitrogen levels.
– Hairy vetch is a great seed to sow later in the fall. It’s popular with pollinators, especially in April and May when flowers are scare. However, vetch will spread more than other cover crops. After cutting vetch, plant vegetables directly into the same space with the vetch fertilizing and mulching new plants.
– Most of these can be planted alone or in a mix. A good mix combines hairy vetch, crimson clover, oats and Austrian winter peas. Planted in mid-September through October, these will suppress winter weeds. The plants still look good by mid-May when they’re mowed and then replaced by vegetable plants. Barto says.
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When to plant
– If you want to hold on to summer vegetables like tomatoes and peppers for as long as possible, sow cover crops by seed in growing trays to transplant. This works better with crimson clover and hairy vetch than grasses, Barto says.
– Planting cover crops mid-September through late October leaves time for the most growth and benefit to the soil. King’s AgriSeeds, Ronks, has an in-depth guide that includes when to plant.
– Later planted crops, like hairy vetch in late October, will still germinate in the fall and then grow in the spring.
– If you miss that window, rye and hairy vetch are good late options, Barto says.
– Planting in February or March is also a possibility.
– Barto spoke in late September, on the edge of when oats should be planted in Scranton. “Just do it, anyway,” Barto says. “See what happens.”
How to plant cover crops
– Start with a firm seed bed. Use a small lawn roller or walk over the space.
– The space doesn’t need to be bare but the remaining plants should at least be mowed down. Tender plants such as cucumber and beans should die when temperatures drop, making space for the cool-season cover crop.1
How to remove cover crops
– By mid-April, put down a silage tarp for a low-effort way to keep weeds away and prep soil before planting. General purpose blue tarps work as well. Cardboard is an option but plastic heats the cover crop, helping it break down quickly.
– Otherwise, close to vegetable planting time, rototill, mow or weed whack the cover crop. If you have a small area or a raised bed, pull the plants by hand.
– Then it’s time to plant vegetables and see what happens.
From the writer: Lessons learned from my first cover crop
I planted my first cover crop last fall.
I’ve wanted to for years but didn’t know where or when to start. Devin Barto’s advice to plant something and see what happens was the push I needed.
Rohrer Seeds in Smoketown had the crimson clover, hairy vetch, rye and Austrian winter peas on my list. I measured one of my raised beds and did the math to come up with the right amount of seeds, by weight. Planting was easy enough to do before waking up my daughter on a rainy weekday morning in the middle of October. (First lesson: it is late but just do it.)
About a week later, I did the same thing in another raised bed. It was only a few days difference but the first bed sprouted quickly while the second bed barely had any sprouts. (Second lesson: don’t wait too late to plant.)
The plants in the raised bed kept the weeds away and were hopefully doing great things in the soil. Throughout the winter, they were a nice pop of green. (Third lesson: stop and appreciate what can survive the bitter cold.)
When spring sprung, the clover, pea and vetch bloomed pink, red and purple. The bees loved the flowers too.
Yet when it was time to pull the cover crop and plant vegetables in the healthy soil in mid-May, my husband was on a month-long work trip overseas. Planting that raised bed was not a priority. The cover crops still hung on while I kept the rest of my garden alive. Even through the drought, they stood tall and at least kept the weeds at bay. (Fourth lesson: cover crops help with weeds and are at least pretty placeholders if life gets extra-busy.)
By the time I was out of survival mode, the cover crop died back in summer’s heat. The fall crop of kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and beets were easy to plant in the weed-free bed. Lettuce, carrot and herb seeds went in next. (Fifth lesson: despite the drought and zero soil amendments, the cover crop soil was not compacted.)
Time will tell if the cover crop will turn the raised bed into the best fall harvest yet. In the first growing season, these plants easily became green mulch that lent a much-needed helping hand during weed season. I’m going to plant this mix elsewhere in a few weeks and see what happens underground.
– Erin Negley
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