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Cover crops multi-purpose

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I spent most of the day on Sept. 11 in the garden, and it was both a beautiful day and a melancholy one. This helps me stay on task actually—quiet contemplation and physical work is a good combination. I was motivated to get the garden cleaned up and replanted with some fall crops like turnips, beets and lettuces. The remaining empty beds were planted with a cover crop.   
Cleaning time
While many disease pathogens winter over on plant debris and an equal amount remain viable in the soil, it means we need to strategize to keep the garden relatively clean. Of course we can’t remove our soil, but do take note of what was planted where, so you can rotate crop locations next year. For example, tomatoes are quite susceptible to several soil borne viral and bacterial diseases, so these should always be planted in different locations each year (with an average three years off) to offset disease incidence.  
We can do a few other things to help the health of the garden and soil over the winter months; once the garden has been cleaned up, focus your attention on improving soil health. I have a habit of getting my compost, old manure or cover crops planted in the fall or early winter, before the spring rush of chores. Plus, spring rains can sometimes delay our work, so having it done before the planting season gets me one step closer to getting the garden in sooner, rather than later.
Stinky situation
Compost and old manure are self-explanatory, the more the better as they will improve drainage (no water-logged roots and a garden that can be worked sooner after heavy rains), water retention (moist but not soggy because we also have good drainage), soil fertility (food for our plants slowly throughout the season in a form that can be taken up by the plant) and a healthy web of soil life (where earthworms, good bacterium, nematodes and other things work symbiotically with our plants).  
Cover up
Cover crops, or “green” manures work similarly, but have the added advantage of breaking up clayey soils as their roots sink deep into the soil, they help to control weeds as they act as winter mulch and since most cover crops are legumes, they also take nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil.
Cool season cover crop plants include various legumes, like bell beans, winter peas and purple and hairy vetch as your nitrogen fixers. Oats and buckwheat have deep roots, so they will break up clayey soils; oats and buckwheat will die out in the winter, but provide a mulch to control erosion and weeds. Annual rye will persist through the winter and begin to regrow in the spring when you can mow it and turn it back into the soil before planting. The weed control effect of cover crops is a great selling point for cover crops alone.

(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at Jwiche@shelbybb.net.)