Now that summer’s warmth-loving plants have gone to the compost bin, the kitchen garden has bare dirt exposed in empty beds. With a few exceptions, like arugula and mache (also known as corn salad), it’s too late to plant winter crops like kale and chard, leeks and hardy roots. So, what can go into this bare soil? Cover crops! They cover the soil, protecting it from hard winter rains and slowly building up foliage and roots that will add organic matter and nutrients to the soil when they are turned in the spring.
Several years ago, I wrote about planting cover crops, explaining that this last step in the garden year was probably the most important thing I do for the kitchen garden. Part of this process is selecting the right cover crop. Over the years, I’ve used small-seeded fava beans, Austrian field pea, annual rye, and, as an experiment in a few beds, mache, also known as corn salad. I’ve abandoned fava beans and field pea because they were attracting pea weevil, but I thought I was making a good choice with annual rye. According to garden authority Linda Gilkeson in a recent interview, I was not.
In a February 2020 blog post from the New Society Publishers, Gilkeson says: “don’t grow fall rye as a cover crop to turn under in the spring: that’s just a magnet for click beetles.” Click beetles are the parents of wire worms, the pest that has increasingly plagued gardeners growing lettuce as well as larger-seeded plants like corn. Yikes! Was I attracting wire worms by using annual rye as a cover crop? No evidence yet that I have, and I hope it’s the same for anyone else who has used annual rye as a cover crop, but I’m not going to use it this year.
Instead, I’ve decided to sow all my open beds with mache. Years ago, a young Lopez gardener suggested I try it as a cover crop, and she gave me some seeds she’d harvested from her crop. Since then, I’ve always sowed at least two beds in mache; this year I’ll sow nine.
There are several things I like about mache as a cover crop. It germinates reliably in the first weeks of October when I am ready to plant cover crops, and its foliage and mass of fine roots break down quickly in the spring. It’s very winter hardy, surviving temperatures in the single digits and even thriving in snow. And as a bonus, between winter and spring, the leaves make delicious salads. I’ve always grown a bed of mache for winter Now with mache as a cover crop, I have enough for more salads than I could ever eat.
I’ve ordered seeds of mache from Osborne’s Seeds in Mt Vernon, WA. One 10 /M packet holds about 24 grams of seeds, enough to seed two 5-by-18 foot beds. My friend Carol has ordered cover crop seeds from True Leaf Market. I may order from them next year.
The seeds are tiny and light but are quite easy to broadcast thinly over a bed.
I rake them in lightly, tamp the soil down with the back of the rake, and then cover the bed with a row cover like Reemay to protect germinating plants from birds. Once the plants are up, I remove the row cover. If you’ve never sowed a cover crop, the video on this English site is a good guide. I was interested to see that this site also recommends mache or corn salad as a cover crop.
If you’re looking for one last chance to be out in the garden before the garden year comes to the end, planting cover crops is a great way to spend a sunny fall afternoon.