Boost Your Soil's Nutrition by Planting a Winter Cover Crop

Claire Splan

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Warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and squash pump out lots of produce all summer long for you, but all that fruit-bearing takes a toll on your soil.

Even if you’ve regularly fertilized or added compost, your soil at the end of the season may be deficient in multiple macro- and micro-nutrients, but especially low in nitrogen. Nitrogen is the nutrient that really drives the greening of your garden; when your soil is nitrogen-deficient, nothing will truly thrive.

A soil test will tell you definitively what nutrients your soil needs, but even without a soil test, you can safely assume that your soil could use a boost. One way to do that is to plant a cover crop.

What’s a cover crop?

“Cover crop” is a term commonly used in agriculture for a crop that is planted in between commercial crop cycles to keep the soil healthy. A cover crop helps to suppress weeds and keep the soil from compacting in the winter, then it is cut down at the end of the season to provide mulch for planting spring crops.

But cover crops can work for home gardeners too. If you want to plant a smaller amount of edibles for the winter or take the cool season off entirely, planting a cover crop gives you a way to take a break without giving weeds the run of the garden. And in the spring, you’ll have soil that has rested and recouped some energy.

There are several good options for cover crops, including vetch, rye, buckwheat, and clover. You should plant cover crops at least four weeks before killing frosts are expected so they have time to get established. For these grassy crops, rake over the soil, broadcast the seed over it, and then rake it in lightly and water.

A cover crop that does double duty

If planting a grass crop doesn’t appeal to you, there’s one cover crop that pays an additional bonus: fava beans.

Like all legumes, fava beans have nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots that actually release nitrogen into the soil. But the bonus is that both the fava beans and greens are edible.

Fava beans can be grown as either a spring or fall crop, but since they require ninety days of cool weather for a good crop, they are typically grown as a winter crop in really warm climates.

Two good varieties are ‘Windsor’, which grows to 6 feet, and ‘Robin Hood’, growing up to 3 feet tall.

When using fava beans as a cover crop, plant the seeds 1 to 2 inches deep, and space them so that you’ll have one plant per square foot. Fava beans are very tall, upright plants; planting them close together allows them to support each other as they grow. Water well after planting and water regularly until the rainy season takes over.

Fava beans should be harvested when they start to plump up, usually 120 to 150 days after germination. You can eat favas raw or cooked, with the inner skin on the bean or removed if it’s tough. Fava leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach.

(Note: Some people of Mediterranean descent carry an enzyme deficiency that makes them allergic to fava beans.)

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Writer/editor. Author of "California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening" and "California Month-by-Month Gardening."

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