Some of our raised row with their blanket of cover crops after last seasons tomato harvest.
Some of our raised row with their blanket of cover crops after last seasons tomato harvest.

Anyone who follows our blog regularly knows the importance we place on using cover crops in our garden. Quite simply – they are the best way to easily and inexpensively build your garden soil into super soil.  Cover crops are simple to plant, easy to maintain, and easy to incorporate into the soil in the spring.  We get so many questions to the blog on cover crops – so for today’s gardening post – we thought we would write a basic course on cover crops.

WHAT IS A COVER CROP?

A cover crop is a specific planting of a crop like annual rye, clover, buckwheat or others that is designed to give its entire resources back to the soil. Instead of harvesting the crop – it is incorporated back into the soil to add vitality, nutrients and organic matter.

BENEFITS

Cover crops give back tons of nutrients to the soil!
Cover crops give back tons of nutrients to the soil!

The list of benefits for cover cropping goes on and on – but there are 4 main advantages to planting one in your garden or raised beds:

1. They add tremendous amounts of organic matter and nutrition back to your soil.

2. They protect your soil from losing valuable nutrients from erosion, wind and rain

3.They significantly cut down on the amount of weeds you will have in your gardening space next year.

4. They loosen your soil, making it easier to work with each successive crop.

WHEN TO PLANT:

We like to plant or cover crops in mid to late fall – giving them enough time (a month or so) to germinate and fill in the planting rows of our garden with a thick patch of growth.  They will continue to grow until the first hard frost, at which point they will die back and turn brown for the winter.  As the soil and temps start to warm up in the spring – they too will “spring” back to life and continue to grow.  We keep ours growing until we are about ready to plant our spring crops – and then turn them over in our raised beds right before planting.

WHAT TO PLANT:

Annual Rye makes a great cover crop to feed and protect your soil
Annual Rye makes a great cover crop to feed and protect your soil

We prefer annual rye – it sprouts fast, grows fast – and has great root structure that helps loosen the soil.  It also is fantastic at fixing nitrogen levels in your soil – making it easy for the next crop planted to absorb it into it’s roots, stems and leaves.  Annual rye is also easy to turn over with just a shovel or pitchfork.  Other good choices for cover crops are buckwheat, annual clover, and hairy vetch.  Just remember when you are selecting your seed – to make sure these are specifically for cover crops and are annual varieties.   Feed mills and garden stores are great places to buy the seed – and usually are more than happy to help out with questions and advice.

WILL THE COVER CROPS COME BACK AND BE A PROBLEM IN MY BEDS ?

Cover crops help to eliminate weed problem in your garden - not create them
Cover crops help to eliminate weed problem in your garden – not create them

If you are using a true annual seed like annual rye – you will not have to worry about it coming back. Most problems occur for two simple reasons – either the seed used for a cover crop was a perennial variety, or it was allowed to go to seed – at which point – the seed heads could reseed the ground below.  Both potential problems are easy to overcome – make sure you purchase your seed from a reputable seed dealer, and be clear to ask for annual varieties.  Second – if you begin to see your cover crop forming a seed head or shoot – simply mow it off and you are good to go.

HOW TO PLANT:

The best part of planting a cover crop is the ease in which it can be done.  No need to till or dig up your soil form the past gardening season.  Simply rake it out and scatter your seeds – much like if you were spreading grass seed.  Next, gently and easily rake into the soil, water – and in about 10 to 14 days – your cover crop will be growing!

CARE :

Caring for your cover crop is just as easy – you simply watch it grow!  We will mow it if it starts to become tall and before seed heads form – keeping away any new rye from growing.  We also mow ours off right before we turn it over to make it easy to incorporate.  The clippings add organic matter as well.

A LITTLE EXTRA INFO…

Yes- cover crops work! They make your garden productive year after year!
Yes- cover crops work! They make your garden productive year after year!

So – do they really work?  The answer is yes – and here’s a little story from our own garden this past season that reminded us just how important they are.

Our main garden consists of 27 raised row beds. We were able to put 25 of our 27 rows last year into cover crops.  We had run out of seed for the final two, and never made it back to sow the last two rows. When we went back to plant our crops this spring – it amazed me to see how much easier the soil in the cover crop rows was to turn.  It was loose, friable, and did not clump together.  The final two rows – completely opposite!

Then 4 weeks into the growing season, it became even more evident why cover crops work.  The rows where we had used cover crops were virtually free of weeds, and the plants were all healthy and green.  The missing rows were loaded with all types of weeds that had obviously blown into the open and bare soil over fall and winter months, and the plants were noticeably smaller and less healthy.  Real life results of the advantages of a cover crop!

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Happy Gardening – Jim and Mary!




0 thoughts on “Cover Crops Basics – What Are They – And How And Why To Use Them For A Great Garden!

  • August 16, 2015 at 10:32 am
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    I live on the gulf coast, when should I plant a cover crop. We start planting in February and can year-round garden. Our earliest freeze is usually middle of November. Thanks for your help. I love your information.
    Sandy

    Reply
  • March 29, 2015 at 5:34 pm
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    I have never heard of this before and can’t wait to try it out at the end of the season this year. I am new to the self-sustainable garden journey and think this is a good way to inexpensively and naturally revamp your garden soil with nutrients.

    Reply
  • August 21, 2014 at 10:38 am
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    I have one question, please. I have some empty rows right now that I am not replanting till next spring. I am in central Missouri, when can I plant hairy vetch to stop weeds from growing in those empty rows? Didn’t know if August was too soon to plant. Thanks so much, I love your site!!!!

    Reply
    • August 21, 2014 at 9:05 pm
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      Kim – you can plant it right now – if it grows too tall by the end of fall – you can just mow it down with a mower or weed eater and it will come back fine until you are ready to turn it under. All you need to make sure of is that it doesn’t get too tall and go to seed.

      Reply
  • August 18, 2014 at 6:07 pm
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    Hello-
    I read your article on Cover crops last year and am planning to try them out this year. For the moment I have one 4×8 raised planter bed. (more to come!!) I just recently planted some late season crops, lettuce, beets, etc. I was also planning on planting some ‘fall planting, spring harvesting’ crops, such as garlic and/or shallots, so my question is can I plant cover crops along with the spring producing crops? Also along those lines, I assume I would want to harvest my ‘late season’ crops before planting the cover crop. I live in Denver, CO.
    thanks, Christine

    Reply
    • August 20, 2014 at 1:12 pm
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      Christine – sounds like your garden space is growing! In short, you can plant your cover crops in any area that is not planted or portions of an area. You definitely want to harvest any crops before putting in the cover crop. Hope that helps and good luck with your garden!

      Reply
  • August 16, 2014 at 8:52 am
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    Hi Jim and Mary,
    I love your gardening advice! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with others, it has been so helpful and inspiring.
    Do you recommend a layer of compost along with a cover crop or does the rye replace the compost?
    Thank you,
    M.E.

    Reply
    • August 16, 2014 at 11:40 am
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      Thank you so much for the compliment on the site – the cover crop really helps with adding a lot of fertility to the soil – but if you have the available compost – I would put a an inch or two on to really help the beds!

      Reply
  • March 19, 2014 at 8:29 am
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    These blog posts are fantastic! Thank you for all of the useful information!

    What are annual clover varieties in the south-east US?

    Why not plant perennial clover (red or white) as a living mulch and just ho or partial till a strip for planting?

    Reply
  • January 28, 2014 at 5:00 pm
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    I am just now starting this method. I live in Mississippi so I can start now with a cover crop. I just want to make sure I am doing this correctly. I added the straw and then top soil. I put the cover crop over the top soil, right? When you turn your cover crop over….exactly how deep do you turn it over? Do you just turn it over into the top soil or go as deep as the the straw is?

    Reply
  • January 16, 2014 at 9:11 pm
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    Enjoying your posts on gardening. We have a huge garden and have tilled every year, so this year we want to try your method of the raised beds, no tilling. We already have our beds, so I am assuming in the Spring we just start with a layer of straw and top soil. We have also planted cover crops, but we are wondering
    how do you turn your cover crop into your beds without a tiller? I am glad I found your blog. It is great. We, too, live on three acres and love gardening, canning, and we added chickens last spring! Thanks for sharing all your knowledge 🙂

    Reply
    • December 5, 2013 at 6:05 am
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      Yes – they are both the same cover crop – just called different names in different parts of the country. 🙂

      Reply
  • October 9, 2013 at 11:18 am
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    you didn’t mention alfalfa or fenugreek, which are excellent nitrogen fixators. i use them as companion plants in my garden

    Reply
  • September 22, 2013 at 8:11 pm
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    Can you tell me where you buy your rye seed. I live on the other side of Ohio and I’m haven’t been able to find it.

    Reply
    • September 22, 2013 at 9:26 pm
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      Hi Amber – you can find it at most feed mills. If you have a Landmark cooperative near you – they usually carry it too. We buy ours at a feed mill in Granville Ohio. What part of Ohio are you from?

      Reply
  • September 22, 2013 at 8:09 pm
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    Where do you buy the rye seed. I live on the other side of the state and I’m haven’t been able to find it.

    Reply
    • September 22, 2013 at 9:26 pm
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      Hi Amber – you can find it at most feed mills. If you have a Landmark cooperative near you – they usually carry it too. We buy ours at a feed mill in Granville Ohio. What part of Ohio are you from?

      Reply
      • September 23, 2013 at 8:26 am
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        Thanks for responding. We don’t have any Landmark Co-ops but we do have several Tru Pointes in the area so I will check there. We are in Shelby County.

        Reply
  • September 22, 2013 at 3:09 pm
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    Hi..I would like to try this with my raised beds this fall..What is a reputable seed company I can buy seeds from online?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • September 22, 2013 at 9:28 pm
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      Dawn – I am not sure who sells it online -although I am sure there are many. DO you have a local feed store? Many of them carry it as well.

      Reply
  • September 21, 2013 at 10:37 am
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    We are going to try the annual rye. My question is, “Is this safe for my chickens to eat?” Say if we bought a 50 lb. bag & had left over seed, could we feed it to them? And I am assuming it would be safe for them to eat once it starts to grow.

    Reply
    • September 21, 2013 at 11:58 am
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      We have never had a problem at all – and the chickens will definity like to “graze” the annual rye when it comes up 🙂

      Reply
      • September 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm
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        Thank you so much for sharing what you have learned on your farm. I am so glad I saw your little spot on the news 🙂

        Reply
  • September 4, 2013 at 5:47 pm
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    I live in Tampa, Florida, where there is a growing season all year long. Would you keep planting and replenishing the soil with compost, or actually lay off for a few months and plant a cover crop?

    Reply
  • September 4, 2013 at 8:44 am
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    I have a question. We have raised beds which we covered with the black fabric to keep the weeds out. Under the black fabric, we enriched our soil with compost and chicken manure. How do we plant a cover crop in this situation? Do we remove the black fabric and then sow the cover crop seed? Thank you for help with this.

    Reply
    • September 4, 2013 at 11:26 am
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      Carol – yes – you would need to remove the cover and then plant the crop. you could then put it back on if you wanted after you turned it back into the soil.

      Reply
  • September 3, 2013 at 10:32 pm
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    Please tell me, just how hard is it to turn this back into the soil with a spade or pitchfork? That sounds like some pretty physical work. Do you think a 51 yr old female who is not in the best of shape can really do this?

    Reply
    • September 4, 2013 at 11:32 am
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      Once the soil is established – it really is not hard to turn over. I can do our 20′ x 18″ raised rows in about 10 minutes.

      Reply
  • September 3, 2013 at 9:41 pm
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    What about perennial plants like raspberries,strawberries and herbs?

    Reply
    • September 4, 2013 at 11:32 am
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      Unfortunately – hard to use them in that situation – we instead usually top coat with a few inches of compost and rake in to those beds.

      Reply
  • September 3, 2013 at 2:17 pm
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    A lot of gardeners talk about a no-till approach to gardening and feel tilling the soil destroys it’s structure. How do you feel about that in relation to tilling in the cover crops?

    Reply
    • September 3, 2013 at 3:26 pm
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      We use a no till approach – i just think the a tiller creates more problems with soil structure and also with re-planting many of the weeds seeds that lay on top. We turn ours over with a spade or a pitchfork and do not overwork the soil at all – planting our vegetables right into the soil. The small channels and air pocket that remain are helpful and beneficial to giving the plants air and nutrients. Just our take…but it really seems to work.

      Reply
  • September 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm
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    Kathy, cover crops are a great way to help your garden, but don’t expect miracles from them. If you let your weeds go to seed, those seeds can remain viable for years. Sometimes 40-100 years! So even if you can’t pull all your weeds, try to at least cut off all the seed tops. It usually takes several years of weed management, including cover crops, to take back control of a weedy area. You can make a big impact through solarization (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74145.html) next summer.

    Reply
  • September 3, 2013 at 1:12 pm
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    Year after year, my garden is a weedy mess. I have so many weeds that by the time August rolls around, I can’t keep up with pulling them, so I just let it go. A few weeks ago I read this article on your website and immediately went out and purchased some annual rye. As soon as the growing season is over, it’s getting planted. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a weedless 2014.

    Thanks for all the useful articles and tips!

    Kathy

    Reply
    • September 3, 2013 at 1:51 pm
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      Kathy – It will certainly help – but one of the best ways to really help eliminate weeds is by also using mulch – it really helps to suppress them over time and makes weeding less of a chore. It will take a few years to get total control – but don’t give up – every little step helps! Jim

      Reply
      • September 4, 2013 at 11:00 am
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        Do not till your garden you expose weed seeds that were below the surface and they are viable for years. put down a Black plastic to heat the ground to kill the weed seed that was brought to the surface.

        Reply
        • September 4, 2013 at 11:30 am
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          Terry – you are right on tiller – and one of the reasons we do not use one. We have found also that the more organic material we add – and the more cover crops we use- the soil is really easy to work by hand.

          Reply

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