As you begin to clean out the spent vegetable crops such as squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes, it’s tempting to wipe your hands of the garden for the season. But before you wrap up the growing season, you can perform one more activity that will benefit your garden for next year. Sowing cover crops now will help prevent erosion and build up nutrients for next year’s garden. Cover crops add valuable organic matter to the soil. Organic matter is the food of soil microbes. The microbes help make the soil more workable and enable plant roots to take up nutrients.

In warm areas, you can still grow a quick summer cover crop, such as buckwheat, that will be planted and turned under before sowing the winter cover crop. In most other areas, it’s time to sow the winter cover crop that will stay in the garden until spring. It’s good to sow a combination of grains and legumes to add organic matter and nitrogen to the soil. I like a combination of hairy vetch, field peas, and winter rye. Other good legume options would be alfalfa and red clover. Some good grains to combine with the legumes are winter rye, winter wheat, and oats.

Prepare the soil in your garden beds as you would for planting any seeds. Broadcast the seeds on top of the beds and rake them in. If the weather is dry this fall, water to aid germination and early growth. The seeds should sprout up in a week or so and then grow until the days become too short and cold. Then some legumes, like field peas, will die with the winter’s cold, but the grains and other legumes, such as alfalfa, will survive and start growing again in late winter. In spring, till under the cover crop, wait a few weeks, and plant. If you plant cover crops every year, you can slowly build up the tilth and fertility of your soil.