Without a doubt, the most important crop we plant every year in the garden is our fall cover crop. Yes, not our beloved tomatoes, cucumbers, or even popcorn for that matter – but a cover crop!

Unlike the vegetable plants we grow, a cover crop certainly doesn’t provide us with a harvest of fresh produce. But it does set the stage for an incredibly productive garden, year after year.

cover crop
Our garden as it looks in late fall, with a protective and re-energizing cover crop of annual rye growing strong.

In fact, cover crops are one of the biggest keys to the success of our entire garden. One that is extremely easy to maintain – with fewer weeds, less pests, and better soil structure and nutrients to boot.

Here is a look at why and how cover crops work, and when and how to plant them. We also include two separate videos in today’s article to cover the subject too.

Why, When & How To Plant A Cover Crop

The Why Of Planting Cover Crops

A fall cover crop is a must for a great garden, It not only replenishes minerals and stops erosion, but also loosens the soil and eliminates next year’s weeds. All with a planting that takes mere minutes!

Not only will a cover crop strengthen soil with nutrients, it helps to loosen it for better root growth.

The thick, lush growth protects the soil from winter’s fury. And that protection extends to keeping weed seeds out as well.

But even better, as the cover crop breaks down in the soil next spring, it gives back all of it nutrients. Nutrients that feed your vegetable crops like crazy!

The When Of Planting Cover Crops

Cover crops can be planted as soon as your garden, or even a portion of your garden, has completed growing it’s vegetable crop for the season.

In fact, as you will see below in the video, we plant our raised garden rows in a cover crop as soon as a crop finishes. Some rows, like our beans, are planted in early August. Other rows that have crops that finish a bit later (such as heirloom tomatoes and peppers), are planted in late September.

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. After all, it only takes a few minutes to clean out and plant a row in a cover crop.

But this also keeps any soil space from ever being exposed. Bare soil is an open invitation for weed seeds to find a home. And when they do, they become next year’s weeding chores lying in wait.

plant a cover crop
These two rows where beans once grew earlier this year are already seeded with annual rye.

How To Plant A Cover Crop

So how tough is to plant a cover crop. Well, it couldn’t be easier!

There is no need for heavy digging or tilling of the soil. All you really need to do is scratch the top of the soil with a rake, and sow seed directly on the soil.

Seed should be sown fairly thick, much like you would as if you were planting grass seed. Then, simply rake the soil lightly to set the seed in place. (see video below for more)

The seed does not have to be completely covered by the soil. The final raking simply sets it in place to germinate better. Next, cover with a light coat of straw (1″), and water in if the soil is extremely dry.

Cover crops are extremely durable and near-drought proof, so there is little need for watering after planting day. In fact, we often skip the watering-in step all-together if rain is in the forecast in the week after planting.

What To Plant As A Cover Crop

So what is the best selection for a cover crop? There are many choices such as clover, hairy vetch, and even peas – and all have great benefits.

But our go-to for cover crops is and will always be annual (winter) rye. It is the absolute work horse of cover crops. Even better, there is no need to till it in next spring – we actually plant right through it for the easiest no-till garden of all! See: How To Create The Perfect No-Til Garden With Ease

plant cover crops
Annual rye is our go-to cover crop to feed and protect our garden.

Winter rye works wonders in completely smothering weeds and weed seeds. In addition, the rye contains an extensive network of roots that help to loosen soil underneath. And if that wasn’t enough, those roots fix nitrogen levels in the soil, so that next year’s crops will have it readily available.

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

vegetable garden planting guide
We plant our tomatoes and peppers right through the annual rye in late spring as the rye dies off. This helps keep weeding and work chores to an absolute minimum!

Using The Right Seed

One note on using winter rye, and it is an important one for sure! Make sure you are purchasing true winter rye seed. Winter rye is actually a grain, and not a perennial or annual grass seed. Product Link : Winter Rye Grain Seed

Its official name is Secale Cereale. This variety grows fast in the fall and then goes dormant in the winter. It then comes back to life in the early spring before dying back after a few cuttings.

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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Why, When & How To Plant A Cover Crop In Your Garden This Fall!