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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Sunday - September 03, 2006

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Groundcovers
Title: Ground covers to enrich soil over winter in Austin
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

I am about to have a baby so will not be working my vegetable garden from about now (September) through the winter or spring. Is there something (a grass, maybe?) that I can plant now that will benefit/enrich my garden while it lies fallow without any vegetables, something that will be easy to weed when I am ready or better yet -- dies off? Thanks!

ANSWER:

What you want is a ground cover that enriches your soil and keeps undesirable weeds from taking over, but doesn't become invasive. One possibility is to sow the garden with annual rye grass. It grows well in cool weather in both sun or shade. It is non-native, but it is non-invasive and will die on its own in late spring. It should, however, be plowed under before it goes to seed in the spring. This will enrich the soil as well as keep it from growing again in your garden the next fall and winter.

Another possibility for a winter ground cover for your garden is the Field pea (Pisum sativum). Again, it is a non-native but non-invasive and has the added advantage of making an edible crop for you. (It also has the distinction of being the plant that Gregor Mendel used for his famous genetics experiments!) Another advantage of the field pea is that it is a member of the Family Fabaceae (Bean and Pea Family) which are nitrogen fixers, i.e., they can take nitrogen gas from the air and—with the aid of rhizobia bacteria living in nodules in their roots—change it into a form of nitrogen that can be used by the plant and enrich the soil. Some other examples of members of this family are clovers, vetches, alfalfa, and lupins (including our Texas bluebonnet).

After you have plowed under your winter rye grass or your pea plants in the spring you might like to add another member of the Fabaceae to take you past the summer. One of the prairie clovers such as Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) or White prairie clover (Dalea candida) might be a good choice. Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) is another low-growing native in this family. Again, if you don't want the plants there for another season, you should have them plowed under before they set seed.

To find seeds for these suggestions, you can visit our National Suppliers Directory to find seed companies and nurseries near you that specialize in native plants.

 

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