Fall harvest has come and gone, but the gardening work is not over. After the garden beds are cleaned up…it’s time to plant a winter cover crop in your raised beds. Cover crops grow during the fall/winter months, and are tilled under during the late winter/early spring in preparation for late spring or summer plantings. A winter cover crop is excellent at replacing nutrients and organic matter back into the soil after each gardening season.
In Colorado, Zone 5, the best winter cover crop is a combination of winter rye and vetch. Vetch replaces lost nitrogen in the garden bed, where the winter rye is great at adding organic matter.
Many companies sell either winter rye OR vetch, but Urban Farmer, sells a rye/vetch combo! I was very excited that I could get the benefits from both the vetch and rye. I purchased the 5lb bag, but only sowed a little over half the bag (so I have bunch for next year).
After receiving your chosen cover crop in the mail or from your local store, it’s time to plant it. Late October seems to be the ideal time in Colorado to plant your winter cover crop.
Prepare your raised garden beds by removing (and composting) any vegetables that won’t remain through the winter. Sprinkle the winter cover crop seed over your beds and rake into the soil. Water to make sure the seeds germinate. If the weather stays dry throughout the fall, water your cover crop once a week to make sure it stays healthy. The winter cover crop will grow during the fall, go dormant in the winter, and then start growing again in the spring.
When the winter cover crop starts growing again in the late winter or early spring it is time to till it into the soil. Till the raised garden bed about 4-6 weeks before you plan on planting in that bed. This will allow enough time for the crops to compost and breakdown in the soil to provide nutrients for the upcoming gardening season.
Many people, including myself, till in the cover crop and then place a black plastic over the raised garden bed. Doing so speeds up the decomposing process and warms up the soil for earlier plantings. Once the winter cover crops have been sufficiently composted, plant your spring and summer vegetables and enjoy a bountiful harvest!