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As football season begins, many of our vegetable gardens shut down.  I get excited about gardening in February and March, but after the heat of summer and filling my shelves and freezer with produce – I'm tired of gardening.  I won't plant a fall/winter garden this year.  I know many of you plant a fall garden, but I bet the majority of us won't look at the garden again until spring.  If you are like me and don't want to tend a cool season garden, prepare your garden now for next spring; cover the soil in your garden spot.

As I travel through central Alabama in the winter months, the vast majority of gardens I see are bare.  The soil is exposed to the elements; sun, rain, wind, and cold all take its toll on the garden.  Year after year soil exposure causes reduced yields in gardens.  Heavy winter rains can wash the soil right out of the garden.  Even if the rain doesn't wash the soil out, it can wash all of the nutrients out.  Wind can easily transport your soil into the adjacent county if it is not protected.  Thirdly, winter weeds can overtake a garden with exposed soil.  Normally we don't think about winter weeds because we just till them into the soil in the spring.  As I consider this, I think of the hundreds of weed seeds I just tilled into my garden, which will stay dormant just waiting of the light of day to sprout.  Instead of leaving your soil bare, try covering it with something.

Some years all I do is rake all my leaves into my garden.  At 60' x 30' or 1800 square feet, my wife says ours is a large garden, however, it's not too large to accept all of our leaves each fall.  Those leaves and the compost pile will sit on top of the soil until April, when I till it in.  Two weeks later, I begin planting.  Some years however, I plant a cover crop.  Planting a cover crop in the unused portion of the garden protects and adds nutrients to the soil.  What plants should a gardener consider when planting a cover crop?  For that answer let us learn from hunters and wildlife biologists.  Every fall when many gardeners are laying fallow their gardens, many hunters are planting food plots, hoping to attract deer and turkey.  Extension has a great publication, ANR-0485, "Plantings for Wildlife" http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0485/ANR-0485.pdf used by hunters.  In this publication, wildlife biologists list the 50 top crops planted for wildlife.  In the list planting dates, seeding rates, planting depth, and growth type are listed. Nineteen crops are listed as cool season annuals; these are the plants to use as a cover crop.  Cereals such as barley, oats, wheat, and rye grow throughout the winter.  Brassicas such as rape, kale, turnips, and canola have deep roots and large leaves.  Legumes like Austrian winter & Caley peas; arrowleaf, ball, button, crimson, red, & white clovers; blue lupine, common and hairy vetch all add nutrients to the soil.  In the spring, all one has to do is rototill these plants into the garden, allow two weeks for decomposing, and then begin spring planting.  These cover crops in companion with any portion used for winter gardening will provide the soil the protection needed to over winter for next spring.

WAndrew J. Barilritten 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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