garden soil
The bright green texture of 4 week old annual rye – a great green manure crop to plant in the early spring garden

No matter how healthy your vegetable plants start off in the spring – no matter how carefully you water – how perfectly it rains, or how much of the sun’s rays find their way to your garden  – your plants are only going to turn out as good as the garden soil you plant them in.   Period.

Vegetable crops like tomatoes, peppers, corn and cucumbers take a heavy toll on the soil’ structure and make-up.  They devour valuable nutrients as they grow to produce the very fruits and vegetables we love to eat.   Eventually, after a few years – even the best of soils will begin to break down and weaken if not replenished and re-energized.  Soil that becomes weak in nutrients will result in successively weaker crop yields that are also increasingly prone to disease and pests.

So what is the best way to keep your garden strong?  Feed your garden soil!

And no – we’re not talking about heaping on generous amounts of expensive synthetic fertilizers.  Those are temporary fixes to a problem that can leave your soil weak, unstable, and full of excess salts and chemicals.

The real answer lies in adding back natural nutrients to the soil – and one of the best ways to do that is with a “green manure crop” in the spring – before you plant your garden or raised beds.

Planting A Green Manure Crop In Your Garden Or Raised Beds In The Spring

Garden soil
Barren soil makes it easy for soil erosion to occur, and for weed seeds to blow in. Cover crops solve both problems.

We talk a lot about cover cropping in the fall – and for good reason.  Fall cover crops plays a vital role in developing and keeping garden soil beds full of rich organic matter.  They minimize soil erosion and hinder the establishment of weeds, and then feed your soil with organic matter when turned over in the early spring.

But in the spring – we add a green manure crop to put back even more organic material prior to the vegetable garden planting.  It’s quick, easy – and pays huge dividends!

A lot of people are confused by the term “green manure”.  First of all, it doesn’t smell and it’s certainly not a by-product from animals.

So why the name?

Green manure is the term given to a cover crop that is grown specifically to be turned right back into the soil to replenish valuable nutrients and organic matter.  Much like a farmer spreads horse, cow or chicken manure on his fields to fertilize and replenish – growing and digging in a bright green cover crop has the same effect and benefits.  It’s the same concept as why fresh-cut green grass is great to add to a compost pile.  In its fresh-cut green state, grass is a valuable nitrogen source that heats your compost pile up.  Green manure crops do the same, releasing nitrogen back into the earth as they slowly decompose.   Consider it almost a sacrificial offering to the soil 🙂

Garden soil
To have healthy tomato plants – you need healthy soil

When a cover crop such as annual clover, rye or hairy-vetch are young, vibrant and bright green – they are at their absolute height of nutritional value.  Their root nodules below the soil help to “fix” nitrogen levels – and the green matter that is turned back into the soil gives off additional nutrients and nitrogen as it decomposes during the summer months.  All of which serves to replenish the soil and feed your summer crop of vegetables.

Green manure crops also provide many of the same benefits that fall cover crops give – helping to loosen the soil with their fast and deep growing roots and protecting the surface topsoil from heavy spring rains and erosion.  All the more reason to incorporate them into your garden plan!

So when and how do you plant them? 

Bright green annual rye about to be turned under to provide nutritents make room for tomatoes!
Bright green annual rye about to be turned under to provide nutrients for our tomatoes!

We will turn our fall cover crop over in the soil beds about 4 to 6 weeks before we plan on planting our vegetables (about mid-march if the weather allows).  At that point we will plant the spring  “green manure” cover crop seed right into the soil, raking the soil out lightly after turning it over and spreading our seed. The new seedlings emerge in as little as 7 to 10 days, and by the time we are ready to plant our vegetables  in Mid may – it has filled in with a strong thick stand of growth. Then, we simply turn them under again with the pitchfork – and plant our summer garden.  As the green manure crop starts to break down – it releases its energy back into the soil and provides nutrients for the new crops.  If you didn’t plant a fall cover crop, a spring green manure crop can be even more valuable to getting your soil back on track!

Annual rye, annual clover and hairy vetch are all great choices as green manure crops – and can usually be found at your local feed store.

Will I get weeds from them later?

In short – no!  These are annual varieties  – so once you till them into the soil as young green plant material – they wont come back like stubborn weeds.  Furthermore – you incorporate them back into the soil quickly – so the plants don’t have the ability to establish seed heads or seeds that could become a problem.  In fact – using cover crops in the fall and spring can greatly diminish your weed problems by keeping the soil from being barren and open to drifting weed seeds – and the thick, fast growing growth crowds out competing weeds.

Cover crops and green manure crops simply work.  They keep your soil healthy and alive, let your plants thrive – and most importantly, are 100% natural.

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– Jim and Mary

30 thoughts on “How To Breathe Life This Spring Into Your Tired Garden Soil

  • March 25, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    I would like to try this but I am in Minnesota and we are still frozen! I don’t think the soil will be workable this year until late April (last frost date is usually May 30). Will I have time to do this or should I wait until fall? Or, if I sprinkle annual rye seeds when it is slightly thawed, will they still germinate?

    • March 26, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      Diane – you are probably right – it is probably too cold this year to do one in the spring – if it doesn’t warm up here soon – we will be in the same boat!

  • January 15, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    I planted winter rye for the first time in the fall. I didn’t think about trying a spring planting. Thanks for the info!

  • March 27, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Hi, Jim ‘n Mary,
    It’s Mar 27th & I’m in Hot ‘lanta which is unseasonably cold this time of year. ‘Finally able to put in my first real garden this year after dealing with severe water-runoff issues I inherited, In re-building the soil structure, the only affordable way was with, sadly,non-organic soil I hauled in that included some composting materials. All this has been placed on top of a hard-pan of rocks-to-boulders & tree roots from what was once a climax-forest (hickories, oaks, tulip poplars & native dogwoods) + countless weeds ‘n brambles … and too many snakes!. We normally plant our tomatoes in ATL around April 1st. It will likely be several wks longer this year. I’m in awe of your green manure/cover crops vital info and thrilled to have found your blog-site. What wonderful hearts for service to others you have! I’m all in! … QUESTION: IS IT TOO LATE to plant rye grass to get it mature enough in the next 2 wks to then be able to turn it over and start this wonderful organic restoration process? And, should it be covered with wheat straw to prevent the birds from gorging everything in sight during their family-building stage? My feeders and other “treats” I’m afraid won’t sate their hearty appetites and needs for nest-building materials.
    Apologies for the verbosity. May God chase you down with His best blesseings!
    …Carli in Altanta

    • March 27, 2013 at 10:43 am

      Good morning Carli – sounds like your spring is like ours….cold! You usually get a quick green manure crop in with about 3 to 4 weeks – but 2 might be cutting it close. I would hold off until fall at this point there to start the cover cropping. What you can do is make sure to put in plenty of compost in your planting holes when you plant to help out this year. If you do have a lot of birds – a little straw when you do plant will help saving on your seed when you cover crop! We are so glad you found us to – and let us know how the garden progresses! Happy Gardening! Jim and Mary

      • March 30, 2013 at 4:55 pm

        Cheers, Jim ‘n Mary! — ‘Appreciate you on the other side of the monitor. This Buckeye transplant (Akron) will do as you suggest, wati’g til Fall for my cover-cropping endeavours. One thing I’ve learned is to use every natrual resource. My most favourite is the 5-ft T x 50-ft W wall of Autumn leaves I create blowing them down to the Lower 40 to protect the area down there. (Love my back-pack blower!)
        Those fallen leaves are gold. I wouldn’t be able to afford purchas’g the amt of soil amendments necessary creating beddings on such a severely sloping property as ours. It used to be a river-bed so the tendency is to always be building dams and rain-catching gardens but the best is to develop “islands of interest) filled with plant material to slow the run-off and begin restoration.

        Autumn is when my leafy troops arrive! I use them in both Fall and Spring and still have sufficient mulched laf-litter to protect the “floor” from weeds and run-off in conjunction with the “islands”.

        I’ve never lost a new plant resident or transplant yet, even when forced to transplant well past my ideal weather-window. Here’s how:
        I ADD: 1-2 lheaping arms-ful of spent leaves to every single WIDE hole I dig.
        My No-Fail Recipe:
        * Fill the newly dug hole to the top w/ H20. Go away, letting it seep down til nearly emply. The H20 soaks both down and laterally where the newly transplanted roots will live.
        * Re-fill 1/2-way with H20.
        * Add 1/2 the leaves, some good organic soil, fertilizer, rooting hormone + more H20 with remain’g leaves topping it off with a blend of organic + native soils.
        * Add yet more H20 filling the hole to 3/4.
        * Spread the roots of the new plant or tree out, allowing them to soak the watery mixture up to have long drink.
        This may sound tedious but it goes very quickly & helps stave-off transplant shock.
        I’m always rewarded with transplants finding their new “Happy Place!”. It’s a win-win for us both.
        “Scout’s Honour!” any future entries will be brief. I’m quite excited to find you all – that’s my excuse and guess I’m sticking to it!
        Blessings Galore!
        …Carli in Atlanta

  • March 25, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    I live in South Texas and want to start planting my garden this month (March) It gets so hot here by july and August I would hate to wait until May to plant my green beans.

  • February 22, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Reblogged this on Rosemary, Lavender and Thyme and commented:
    This is just what we need to do in all our garden beds, new and old. I knew about fall cover crops, but this is the first I’ve heard about spring cover crops. Great post! Thanks!

  • February 15, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Thank you for the great tips! I was raised on a organic farm and married into a conventional farm. So I’m doing everything I can… In my yard at least to be organic based! I love the cover crops!! I’ve chosen to go with your annual rye this spring!! Thank you for your amazing blog.

  • February 14, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Ok, I think I’ve got it. You plant the fall green manure crop, turn it over in mid-May, and then plant vegetable garden, then in the fall when you’re done with the garden….plant another fall green manure that you’ll turn over in mid-March…

    • February 14, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      You got it Debbie! If you want to really give it an extra boost – you can actually turn over your fall crop in early March and April – and plant a quick green manure crop that you can turn right back under before that May garden. It gives an extra boost of organic material to the soil and helps to make even more Nitrogen available to your plants.

      • February 28, 2013 at 10:33 am

        What would be a “quick green manure crop”? Is it still the rye? I so want to do this but didn’t start in the winter. I have time to start now though. Thanks so much!

        • February 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm

          Annual rye is a good one because of how quick it germinates and comes up strong. You will have to let us know how it does for you! Thanks for following the blog 🙂 Jim

  • February 11, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    I live in the deep south, and I have been thinking about a cover crop. I don’t really get a ‘winter’, so it’s never too cold to grow the cold crops. Currently, I grow peas and when they go-bye, I cut the stems at the ground. Leaving the roots to release the nitrogen they have so nicely stored back into the soil. I usually plant my tomatoes, eggplant and peppers to follow on. I do the same with bean in the summer.

    I was thinking that next year I would rotate out this area, and plant a green manure crop, then in early spring (January 1 😀 ) let the chickens in to turn it over.

    What can I plant that is ok for chickens? I understand that clover isn’t a good choice.

    • February 14, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      I have heard that clover is not the best too – but annual rye is fine for them to root around in. Sounds like you have a great plan!

  • February 10, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve been looking for more sensible ways to nourish my garden. It’s not huge, but it’s mine. 🙂

    • February 14, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      I love that saying! It’s so true – and the more you give it – the more it will produce for you!

  • February 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Stopping by from LHITS Linky! So happy I found a blog about gardening, I mean to learn as much as I can to have a small garden this year! Just pinned this!

  • February 6, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Hi Jim and Mary, I just had to write and tell you how much I enjoy your blog! I read or re-read the archives daily. Thank you for taking time to help me with my gardening efforts. This is an exciting time of the year for all gardeners:-) Kepp up the outstanding work!

    • February 6, 2013 at 11:31 am

      Wow Mark – Thanks so much for the kind words!! So glad that people such as yourself find it helpful – we really enjoy working and writing about the farm and garden. You are so right – what an exciting time of the year – we just need to get the snow off the ground and get those warmer temps here in Ohio!! 🙂 Happy Gardening! Jim and Mary

  • February 6, 2013 at 12:01 am

    Reblogged this on How Did I End Up in Montana? and commented:
    I think I may try this in my garden plot this year…in NW Montana, our tender crops don’t go in until late May, early June at best…this may be a nice way to replenish the soil while I (impatiently) wait.

  • February 5, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    Thank you for providing answers to nearly every questions I have ever had about a cover crop. I have never thought of doing a “green manure” crop. Excellent idea, especially since everything goes into the ground so late around here.

    • February 6, 2013 at 11:32 am

      Glad you found it helpful! Cover crops and green manure crops are really the answer to keep that soil teeming with life! Thanks for stopping by the blog! Jim

  • February 5, 2013 at 9:21 am

    What kind of straw/ hay are you using in your gardens?

    • February 5, 2013 at 10:46 am

      Michelle…we use only straw..since it contains no weed or seeds in it. Hay would introduce too many weeds. The straw in Ohio is usually made up of wheat or oat remnants – both of which work great. Hope that helps – Jim

      • February 25, 2013 at 8:47 am

        I love your blog and look forward to EVERY post. I live in Houston, Texas and although your are in a completely different zone I am hoping you can help me with the green manure and straw questions I have. 1st…would I plant the same as you as far as what type of cover crop and 2nd…what do you suggest I use for “straw” down here? Would pine needles work the same or would that change my soil?

        • February 26, 2013 at 6:31 pm

          Charmin :

          Hello from Ohio! Sorry it took a few days to get back to you – its been a busy time here :). As for the cover crop – yes – you can certainly use the same cover crops there. As for the pine needles, I would worry that could lead to too much acid leach into the soil over time. Do you have a source for shredded leaves or cut grass? Those would work well if you do.

          Thanks again for following along with us!


    • February 5, 2013 at 9:15 am

      If you have a local feed store – they usually sell varieties such as annual rye and clover that make great “green manures”.

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