Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jack Frost, Garlic and Cover Crops.

Rumors of frost were heard in northern Bucks County last Saturday (Oct 23) but for most of Southeastern PA the growing season continues uninterrupted. In fact, even where light frost occurred, as in my backyard, I still see many cold sensitive plants surviving. My fancy new minimum/maximum thermometer at the Extension office in Doylestown says 35 degrees F is as low as it’s been here.

So, it is clear we have not had that killing freeze that signals a definite end to many aspects of gardening. But official, long-term records tell us that we are on borrowed time… the median (equal number of occurrences on both sides of the question) frost date in Bucks County is October 6.

Sure enough the tomatoes and peppers that are still hanging on out there look pretty rough. The accumulation of summer diseases combined with short days and very cool nights makes most of us yank them out of the garden. In fact, smart gardeners ruthlessly pulled these plants a month ago and planted lettuce, spinach, broccoli rabe and other late season crops. Or maybe you even sacrificed the late season tomatoes altogether in return for a fall crop of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower by transplanting these “cole” crops in late August or early September.

Even if you waited until now, there are a couple final crops you might consider. Cover crops and garlic.

Cover crops are plants that we establish to protect soil from compaction, to soak up leftover nutrients and to build soil organic matter. The most common fall cover crop in our area is rye. Not ryegrass but cereal rye, sometimes called winter rye. It germinates quickly in the warm, fall soil and makes a vigorous overwintering cover that resurges in the spring. In fact, you have to prepare to manage this cover crop or it will become a beast that is hard to incorporate. Plan to spade it under in April before it begins to bolt and go to seed. You’ll be rewarded with a great shot of soil organic matter, nutrition and biological activity. Rye is not the easiest seed to find but old-time feed stores will a have it. Seed it at about 3 to 4 lbs per 1000 square feet into well-worked soil. It is a large seed so try to get it about an inch deep.

Last but not least is garlic… the last edible crop we plant in the garden. Our goal is to have the garlic cloves root but not make too much top growth before winter sets in. This allows for a petty wide planting window. I shoot for Columbus Day in mid-October but planting until the end of October, or even a little later is not a problem. Get “seed” at a local farmers market selling locally grown stuff or order a variety grown in the Northeast US for best results. See this link for more details, page 27.

Jack Frost is coming but the gardening season continues.


Anonymous said...

Scott, what are your thoughts concerning using oats as a cover crop as opposed to using rye?

Scott Guiser said...

Oats are great but it is so late in the season that they will not make much growth. And, because they will winter kill, you do not end up with the biomass that rye will produce. If you want a cover that will winterkill, oats is great, just seed it in late August/early September for best results.