Gardening Tips: Cover Crops

Editor’s NoteThe Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written.


What to do this week

The main thing I am doing now, besides harvesting, is dealing with cover crops. I’m crimping or otherwise destroying the cover crops I had planted for the summer period, and planting new ones for fall/winter.

A while back, we talked about cover crops as living mulch. The idea is to whipper snip or otherwise cut back those crops that have served you well as protectors of soil and guardians of moisture as they flower and before they set seed and become a nuisance. You don’t want your cover crop to become a weed!

Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk.

Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk.

You can build your own crimper from an old 2×4 with a strip of metal attached along one edge. Just drag it along the crop to destroy it at the stem, causing it to die off more readily. If you only have small areas to tend,  you can use a whipper snipper, but of course you will have to be careful if you still have crops you plan to harvest for food in the same area.

Now is also a good time to do root pruning, which I mentioned when I first spoke of transplanting shrubs in the spring. Root pruning is an excellent way to help a transplant adjust to the shock of being moved by breaking the shock into two stages. It works well for any shrub or plant that multiplies by throwing up suckers — new little plants — from the roots. (Examples include lilac, hazelnut, currents, elderberry, rose bushes.)

These little plants can be transplanted to expand your garden, or given as gifts in the spring, but first help them along with root pruning. Identify a sucker that has developed enough to make a good transplant. Take a good, sharp shovel (preferably one with a square head but use what you have) and push it straight down into the soil, cutting a complete circle around the young plant. The purpose is to cut the plant from its parent plant, as it is still attached. Don’t move it though, just completely detach it from the main plant, and leave it in place. The young plant will not like this, but it will settle down a bit after the shock. This will give it a chance to strengthen its own independent root system before winter without the added shock of actually moving it to a new location. You can move it later, in spring, and it will be much more likely to survive.

Now is also a good time to add lime to your soil. Many gardeners add minerals in the early spring, but lime is very slow, so adding it now is an excellent idea. It will have all winter to be thoroughly mixed in. That way it will be available to next year’s plants. The rain and snow will disperse the lime between now and spring, so you don’t even have to rake it in. It won’t hurt your plants either, if you want to add it to areas where you still have things growing. I sometimes throw the lime in between the rows of my beans because now is a good time to do it, and, it won’t even burn your active plants. Late summer is preferable for liming if you ask me,because your soil is not wet and soggy, like it can be later in fall or early in spring.


leaf border




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.




The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported, consider subscribing today!