The most important and productive crop you will ever grow in your garden is a fall cover crop.

cover crop
Our annual rye growing last fall in our garden rows

Although its true tomatoes, peppers, corn, zucchini, cucumbers and many other amazing crops feed your family, it’s a cover crop that feeds your garden. And if you don’t feed your garden, those vegetable plants might stop feeding your family!

A cover crop is your one-stop-shop to long-term garden health. It replenishes minerals, loosens soil, eliminates weeds and stops erosion. All with a planting that takes mere minutes!

Without a doubt, our fall cover crop has made our garden soil more fertile and productive every single year. Our soil teems with life, and that life powers our crops to bigger and better harvests every year.

When And How To Plant A Cover Crop

The When…

You can plant a cover crop in the garden as soon as your crops have finished their growth for the season. You do not have to wait for the entire garden to be bare or empty. As a row of plants are finished harvesting, simply pull up the plants and plant your cover crop immediately in that space.

This method of cover-cropping the garden as you go is great for several reasons. First, it makes the chore simple and manageable for the gardener. It only takes a few minutes to clean out and plant a row in a cover crop. Far easier than cleaning the entire garden out all at once and planting the entire space.

Second, and most importantly, it keeps any space from ever being bare. And bare soil is an open invitation to weed seeds and erosion.

The How…

cover crop
A cover crop helps eliminate weeds, and replenishes your garden with nutrients.

Planting a cover crop couldn’t be easier. There is no need for heavy digging or tilling of the soil. Simply scratch the top of the soil with a standard metal rake, and sow seed directly on the soil. Sow seed fairly thick, much like you would with grass seed.

After you have sown the seed, rake over lightly again to “plant” the crop. The seed does not have to be covered by the soil. The final raking simply sets it in a little better to the soil. Cover with an ultra light coat of straw, water in, and you’re finished!

There is little need to water a cover crop after planting. Cover crops are extremely durable and near-drought proof.

What To Plant

Our absolute favorite cover crop is annual (winter) rye. It is the work horse of cover crops. It forms an extremely heavy and dense coat of thick bright green grass.

Winter rye works wonders in completely smothering weeds and weed seeds. The rye contains an extensive network of roots that help to loosen soil underneath, fixing nitrogen levels in the soil so that next year’s crops can have it readily available.

It is important to make sure you are using the winter rye seed. Winter rye is actually a grain, and not a grass seed. It is officially known as secale cereale. This variety grows fast in the fall, goes dormant in the winter, and then comes back to life in the early spring.  Product Link : Annual Rye Seeds

Annual rye seed will usually germinate within 7 to 10 days. As long as you plant at least 3 to 4 weeks before your first hard freeze, it has enough time to become established to protect the soil.

After mowing off a few times, it will die off, and you can plant your veggies right through the surface – without ever having to till! For more on that, see our article :  How To Create A Simple, No-Till, No-Work Garden

Here is to planting a cover crop in your garden this year, and creating great soil!  Happy Gardening – Jim and Mary. 

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When And How To Plant A Fall Cover Crop – The Most Vital Crop Of All!

8 thoughts on “When And How To Plant A Fall Cover Crop – The Most Vital Crop Of All!

  • April 7, 2019 at 7:06 am

    A weed eater or hedge trimmer works the best if your raised rows are under 2-3 years old. We now use a wide push mower to mow off our cover crop because our rows are not as tall as they once were because they are 9 years old now. Hope that helps.

  • April 4, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    What is the best way to mow off the cover crop without compacting the raised beds?

  • August 13, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    Absolutely! We have used a weed eater several times in our garden. It works great!

  • August 13, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    Hi Julia
    We do have a few raised beds as well. We use the cover crop for the areas that we are growing our summer vegetable plants (tomatoes, peppers, etc.). However, we do not use them for our early spring seed crops. In our zone, the spring crops would need to go in the containers before the cover crop dies off and it is a harder to maintain. In those beds/containers, we add compost to the soil in the winter and cover them with a thick layer of organic material so that way weed seeds can’t enter the soil. In the spring we remove what remains of the organic material (straw or shredded leaves) and plant directly in the soil. Hope that helps!

  • August 13, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    That’s a great question. We typically do add a little compost to the soil before seeding the cover crop. We just sprinkle compost on top of the growing rows and then broadcast the seeds on top. This is certainly not required, but we usually have extra compost at the end of the garden season, so we use it.

  • August 13, 2018 at 6:58 am

    If you plant a cover crop, do you still need to apply compost? If so when and how.

  • August 12, 2018 at 8:13 pm

    Hi! Would you recommend growing a cover crop in a small raised bed and containers, and if so would you do anything differently? I live in an apartment and have a small (3’x3′) bed made in the ‘yard’ of the patio and then a bunch of containers that I use to grow flowers/veggies. I’ve swapped most of the soil in the past (particularly from tomatoes) but if I can keep some of it and refresh it with a cover crop that would be great (and less expensive replacing soil!).

  • August 12, 2018 at 11:13 am

    I have garden beds..since I cannot “mow off” the winter rye when It is time to plant again, will using a weed eater work as well to cut it down until it dies off?

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