About a year ago, I wrote an article about planting a cover crop in our gardens to improve soil health and to reduce weed growth through the winter months. Since that article, I have had conversations here at The Gardens with Sallie Lee, an Extension Agent passionate about plants and bees. She told me that although bees hibernate over winter; if temperatures rise over 55 degrees they begin to forage, and many native pollinators are active below 55 degrees. This new knowledge leads me to this article. In Southern agriculture we typically speak of plants as ‘warm season’ or ‘cool season’ plants. As the names imply, warm season plants grow during our summers and cool season plants can grow through much of our winters. I spent the 1990’s in Buffalo, NY. Nothing grows during winter up there! We could expect a snow fall anytime from Columbus Day through Tax Day.
If you currently drive by a flower bed in the Birmingham metro, you will find begonias, pansies, and snapdragons planted. These flowers grow throughout the winter, occasionally hit by a frost, but they will grow and flower until the heat of May takes them out. In Buffalo, those same flowers only grow during the summer. Here in Alabama, and especially ‘Lower Alabama’, we are blessed to have an almost year round growing season. In Birmingham, our first expected frost occurs around Veteran’s Day, and our last frost occurs around Tax Day; however, in some years our frosts are confined to January-February. While frosts occur, there are many times some brief periods of warm weather. During these warm spells, many plants perk up and respond with quick blooms. It is also during these warming spells that our pollinators begin to forage.
During the summer I rotate crops in and out of my garden. If a planting does not produce like it should, if the cows get into the garden, or if the planting has finished producing, I simply till it under and plant another crop. However, for the winter I plant less than a quarter of my garden in cabbages, greens, and turnips. None of these plants will produce flowers before they are picked. What if, I planted clover in the rest of my garden? Planting clover produces flowers for pollinators giving them additional food over winter. Clover reduces the likelihood of weeds gaining a foothold in the garden. It also protects the soil from erosion, and because of root growth, it will help aerate and add nutrients to the soil. Clover is a legume like snap beans. Legumes take the nitrogen out of the air and move it into the roots of the plant. Tilling these plants under during spring keeps the nutrients to the soil.
Planting a cover crop of clover in companion with our cabbage, greens, and turnips offers both our gardens and the local pollinators the comfort and protection they need over winter and a nourishing head start next year.
written by Andrew J. Baril of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
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