Cover Crops for Winter

I know, you are thinking that I might have lost it this week. Why on earth would the backyard gardener need a cover crop? After all, you grow in a small garden bed, not a field. 

The truth is, cover crops are the foundation of a good garden, no matter what the size. 

Think of gardening as feeding the soil, and you are on the right track. Your soil is the foundation of a healthy, productive garden. Protecting and enriching the soil will result in better gardens that can withstand the stress of heavy growth and changes in temperature. 

Cover crops do three things, according to Kelley House, soil scientist:

Help prevent erosion and topsoil loss.

Provide organic matter to the soil the following spring.

Break up soil compaction.

Also referred to as “green manure,”  cover crops typically consist of plant species that are able to germinate and establish quickly. They require very little management and input. The cover crop is typically planted in the fall following the final vegetable crop harvest.

By filling in the vacant spaces between the vegetable crops, cover crops reduce weeds. This saves on weed management techniques like herbicides and manually pulling weeds. All can be undesirable and expensive. Cover crops also add diversity to a home garden, which improves soil health. They reduce the need for fertilizers, further reducing costs.


A good beginner’s cover crop for Washington County is oats, good for protecting garden soil from erosion. Oats will die off during the winter months, so don’t worry about any stray weeds. Oats need about 4 weeks before a hard frost, so they are planted anytime between mid August to early September.