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Frost Alert, Cover Crops, and Tucking Beds in for the Winter

By Katie Gilman

The first frost will be here in Highland County before you know it. For folks at a lower altitude, you may still have time to make the decision of whether to cover crop or heavily mulch your annual beds on your garden or farm. We are experimenting with a bit of both on the AMI farm.
How ever will you decide which approach is better?
Cover crops are usually a grain/grass and/or legume planted to add organic matter, capture residual plant nutrients, reduce erosion. Check out this Cover Crop Guide put together by Cornell University to figure out what combinations might work best on your garden/farm. 
To me, cover cropping seems like the more value added solution to overwintering your land if you are able to think through which cover crops will do best for your growing conditions. If for some reason you aren't able to get a cover crop into the ground in time or obtain the optimal crop seed, adding compost and/or manure and heavy mulch will integrate more nutrients into your soil, beef up your microbial ecosystem, and hold soil in place over the winter. 
On Allegheny Mountain, we sometimes resort to weeding, composting, and mulching beds because we are limited in which cover crops will do well in the extreme cold. Rye and vetch are our main go to cover crops on the mountain.
PUTTING BEDS TO BED: 
  • If you still have ripe produce, harvest it before the light frost, when the temperature falls between 32-28 degrees Fahrenheit. Root vegetables- carrots, beets, onions, garlic, potatoes, turnips, etc- can withstand light frost. Harvest before hard frost, below 28 degrees Fahrenheit and store in a root cellar or cool, humid environment to extend preservation. 
  • Move dead plants to the compost pile or cut up disease-free plants and use them on the ground as mulch after compost is added. Diseased plants should be discarded off-site as not to spread unwanted plant illnesses. 
  • OPTIONAL- perform a soil test. Dig 15 or so small holes in a random pattern in your yard about eight inches deep. Make sure the area you're digging is free of organic matter such as weeds.  Shave a slice of soil from the side of the hole and put this into a clean bucket. Mix the many samples together of soil from the plot together and put a cup or two in a plastic bag to send to a laboratory through your local Extension Service. You can also buy a soil test from your local hardware or lawn and garden store, or from the good 'ol internet.  The soil test will help you identify what nutrients have been depleted from your soil over the growing season and should be added back in. If we are unable to perform a soil test we generally add a generous layer of compost in hopes it will suffice in adding back nutrients to our soil. 
  • Add a generous layer of compost on the bed. Rake evenly over surfaces. ​
  • Layer mulch, comprised of autumn leaves, hay, plant stalks, wool, burlap sacks, etc. on the soil of your vegetable garden beds and around your ornamental shrubs. You  will remove mulch in the spring for early crops.
  • You can leave some winter weeds in the soil to act as cover crops, but remove them before they go to seed next spring. 
  • Be ready to cover any cold tender perennials with row cover or a plant blanket to protect your valued plants​
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