As autumn sets in and the beginning of winter draws near we are faced with the question: what to plant in the winter garden? Of course there is the standard selection of frost-resistant greens and root vegetables — spinach, lettuce, kale, beets, carrots, and the like — but there are many challenges associated with cultivating ample yields of food crops in the winter months, not the least of which being the unpredictable climate. Additionally, heavy garden growth from spring through fall can deplete the nutritional content of your soil.
Fortunately there is a simple solution — cover crops. A cover crop is planted on any open, unused patches of soil during the fall and winter months to shore up the quality of the soil for the following spring growing season. Cover crops provide a two-fold protective shield for your soil — the green growth prevents nutrients from the topsoil from being lost into the atmosphere, while the root growth prevents erosion and weed growth. Finally, at the end of winter the crop can be mowed back and tilled into the soil, providing a nutritious boost for your spring garden.
The two standard cover crops in temperate American climates are oats and winter rye. Both crops can be generously seeded over a spent summer or fall garden with little or no tilling. Because the crop is being grown to feed your soil rather than yourself winter crops do not need much in the way of careful attention. Over the course of the season less hardy crops like oats will die back with heavy frosts, while frost-resistant winter rye will continue growing green until spring. These need to be mowed down and allowed to dry out before tilling.
If the idea of filling up large portions of your garden with crops that will never see the dinner table sounds sacrilegious then you may want to consider buckwheat as a cover crop. Buckwheat is a grass-like plant with a short growing season and small triangular seeds. Rich in both protein and complex carbohydrates, buckwheat makes a phenomenal winter staple for use in soups, stews, bread, and noodles. The plant itself also functions perfectly as a cover crop, choking out encroaching weeds and reintroducing nitrogen and other essential nutrients into spent soil. After the first buckwheat crop is harvested the remainder can be tilled into the earth similar to the winter rye or oat crops.
Managing a winter garden can sometimes be challenging, but it is important to remember the cyclical, systemic nature of gardening. Even when environmental conditions prevent growing standard American garden favorites there is still much that can be done to improve your soil — and your garden — for the future.