A bountiful spring vegetable harvest starts this fall

To improve next year’s production, sow a cover crop by mid-October.

TO IMPROVE PRODUCTION in your vegetable garden, sow a fall cover crop, commonly referred to as “green manure.”

There are three types of plants typically used as cover crops: cereal grains (grasses), brassicas (cabbage-family plants) and legumes (pea-family plants).

If you have land that has been left idle, or your soil is heavy clay, cereal grains and brassicas are the most effective.

Planted in fall, oats makes a great cover crop. This grain develops a deep root system that breaks up heavy soils to improve drainage. The vast root system collects and stores nitrogen and minerals from deep within the soil. In spring, the top growth and roots can be turned under to improve soil structure and to release the stored nutrients as fertilizer for the next crop.

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There are a number of cabbage-family cover crops, but if you have heavy, compacted soil, one of the best to sow in fall is ‘Groundhog Daikon Radish’. Daikon means large root, and this strain was bred to form huge tap roots that reach far into the soil to break up hardpan soils and to retrieve nitrogen and other nutrients that have leached deep. This is one cover crop you don’t have to till into the soil. Planted in fall, the radishes grow to up to 20 inches long before dying during the winter, after which they decay to release stored nutrients for spring planting.

For the typical home vegetable gardener, the best cover crops are often legumes such as winter peas, fava beans, clovers or vetches. These members of the pea family germinate and grow quickly enough to form a protective ground cover before winter freezes set in, yet not so fast as to harm late-season or overwintering vegetable crops. Legume cover crops improve the soil by producing thick foliage that prevents pounding winter rains from compacting the soil surface and leaching out nutrients, while at the same time choking out winter and late spring weeds. They improve drainage and soil structure by forming an aggressive root system that breaks up and aerates the soil.

In early spring, a cover crop helps soak up excess moisture, making the soil workable earlier. Most important, cover crops in the pea family host special bacteria that collect nutrients and make them available as fertilizer. Some of the nutrients are used by the legume plants themselves, but the excess is…

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