Fall cover crops improve soil, and can provide a winter bounty.
Through Fall and Winter, while your garden beds may not be planted with over-winter veggies, they can still be working to repair and replenish for next spring and summers harvests. Planting cover crops, such as grains and nitrogen fixing legumes, can work miracles on the soil, and can reduce your need for extra nitrogen fertilizer and compost. A cover crop reduces erosion, loosens compacted soil, improves nutrients and attracts beneficial insects. There is a large selection of fall cover crops for a broad range of needs.
Some of the most common cover crops used in this area as a winter cover is Winter Rye and Austrian Winter Peas (AWP) or Winter Rye and Hairy Vetch. The grain provides a structure for the peas or vetch to grow up into. The legumes provide nitrogen. AWP produce an edible pea shoot in the late winter to early spring that can be eaten or sold at market. Hairy Vetch produces a beautiful flower that attracts beneficial insects. Care should be taken with Hairy Vetch as the seed will ripen and can re-grow in areas were you may not want it. We enjoy having the Vetch growing up our deer fencing that surrounds our gardens, producing purple flowers that bees love. We also recommend using a variety of other cover crops mixed in any proportion throughout your winter covers. Yellow mustard can be planted in late fall and act as a soil fumigant. Tillage radish produces a large deep root that helps to break up heavy clay soils. Any of the clovers are excellent nitrogen fixers and are great as a plowdown type cover, or can be used long term for areas you are not planting your garden in for awhile. If you are not able to plow your Rye and AWP down with some tillage equipment in the spring after mowing, then you may want to consider planting cover crops such as Spring Oats or Barley; these grains tend to die at about 13 degrees F, making it easier to work up your soil in the spring.
A cover crop works for you all Fall and Winter, with little effort on your part, improving the soil and your garden for the long run!