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Cover Crops – Not Just for Farmers

May 17th, 2011

Over the past couple years I’ve been experimenting with cover crops in my garden. So far I’ve planted: crimson clover, hairy vetch, winter rye, buckwheat, fall cover crop mix, spring cover crop mix and various other legumes. Cover crops play a variety of roles in your garden. Use them to protect soil during the winter, they prevent erosion while improving it. They can also help control nematodes and mitigate other soil issues. They work beautifully as a suppression crop on a newly made garden keeping the weeds at bay.


Crimson clover is my favorite, it’s a beautiful cover crop. The first time it bloomed in my garden 2 years ago I knew I’d be using it for years to come. It grows quickly, smothers weeds and brings up nutrients for future crops – all this while looking fabulous!


This past winter I experimented with an overwintering cover crop mix. It contained: winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover. It started growing last fall and reached a height of about 6 inches. Throughout the winter it went dormant and protected the soil. This spring as soon as it warmed up slightly the rye started growing. Soon enough the vetch joined in and before long it was almost 4 feet tall.

I chopped it down last week as the vetch was just beginning to bloom. Using pruners, I cut it down in 6-8 inch segments and then went to work digging it into the soil. Before long my neighbor came over inquiring if I was wanting to work up the soil.  He’d just purchased a new toy and was itching to use it.  A few minutes he returned with his new tiller and starting working the cover crop into the soil.  Mr Chiots came out and did the rest while I chatted with our neighbor.

I source my cover crop seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They have a great selection of single crops and mixtures, just about everything you’ll ever need. Here’s a great chart from them to help you chose the right crop for your application (click on the image to view larger, readable version that you can save if you want to).

It’s quite amazing the difference a cover crop will make when it comes to improving the soil. It takes patience because you have to wait for it to grow, buy it’s certainly an inexpensive way to amend large areas of soil. I’m looking forward to trying a few other varieties. I currently have mustard seeds and I’m looking forward to trying a turnip as well. Now that I have a new large garden they’ll come in handy for smothering weeds on the newly cleared land and they’ll improve the soil in the process so it will be ready when it comes time to grow vegetables!

Do you ever use cover crops in your garden?

24 Comments to “Cover Crops – Not Just for Farmers”
  1. Kathi on May 17, 2011 at 7:25 am

    Can you plant in it right after you cut and till the cover crop in or is there a waiting period while they decompose? I’ve always been curious about cover crops but I have a small plot that I have been not cultivating or tilling. I started it in the “lasagna garden” technique.

    Reply to Kathi's comment

    • Susy on May 17, 2011 at 7:34 am

      Yes, you have to wait 2 weeks to plant after tilling in the cover crop.

      Reply to Susy's comment

      • Drake R Wilkinson on September 3, 2013 at 1:30 pm

        why?

        to Drake R Wilkinson's comment

      • Susy on September 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm

        Because the process of breaking down the green matter will bind nitrogen for a while.

        to Susy's comment

  2. Jennifer Fisk on May 17, 2011 at 7:43 am

    I have tried to grow a cover crop but I’m always too late. It seems as though by the time I have to pull the no longer producing plants there isn’t enough time to get the cover crop germinated and growing and in the spring it doesn’t get going before it is time to plant again. I did have some winter rye pop up and I’ve pulled it for the chickens. What the heck, it will ultimately get into the garden.

    Reply to Jennifer Fisk's comment

  3. Melissa on May 17, 2011 at 7:45 am

    I used Dwarf Essex Rape from Baker Creek last winter in my raised beds- it gave me beautiful yellow blooms this spring! We also used cowpeas to cover crop our backyard to begin to build good soil. The whole area was very compacted and devoid of topsoil. This year we have a low grassy flower mix growing on it, not really a cover crop but better than plain old grass that you have to mow all the time!
    Melissa´s last post ..Cheap Thrifty Dog Bed

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  4. ryan on May 17, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Have you heard of crimping the crop instead of tilling? You can crimp the crop + then plant into it, using the fallen matter as a mulch. That way you don’t have to till and disturb the earth… it is worth investigating + I think it takes less energy, human + petroleum!

    Beautiful pictures as always!
    ryan´s last post ..Spring Greens

    Reply to ryan's comment

    • Susy on May 17, 2011 at 8:29 am

      I have heard of that, but haven’t spent enough time reading about it and which crops it works with to use it yet. One of the reasons we tilled this area too was that it needed graded a bit as it was very uneven. I keep wanting to read more about no-till gardening as it is so much better for the soil & plants!

      Reply to Susy's comment

      • KimH on May 17, 2011 at 8:37 pm

        Have you read Ruth Stouts books? I read them 30 years ago & have used her methods in some of my past gardens.. It works beautifully!

        I dont use cover crops here but I dont have open space either.
        Love the pic of the crimson clover.. its gorgeous as always..

        Also I love Johnny’s Selected Seeds.. Thats an oldie but a goodie. I used to get all sorts of neat stuff from them back in the 90s when I was gardening in a big way.. Good folks.

        to KimH's comment

  5. Daedre Craig on May 17, 2011 at 8:58 am

    I have never used cover crops…do weeds count? Weeds may not add much to the soil, but they do still help prevent erosion.
    Daedre Craig´s last post ..Blackberry Plants

    Reply to Daedre Craig's comment

    • Susy on May 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

      Weeds are actually great for the soil, at least some like dandelions.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  6. Andrés on May 17, 2011 at 9:04 am

    I had been thinking about doing a cover crop this coming winter, and have been starting to do some research about growing winter wheat as the cover crop, in the hopes that I may get some wheat out of it to use with your new flour mill to make ourselves some bread.
    Andrés´s last post ..Strawberry Jam

    Reply to Andrés's comment

    • Susy on May 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

      I’d love to try growing wheat as well someday. I almost waiting for the rye to mature so I could harvest some of that, but a big wind/rain storm blew it all over.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  7. goatpod2 on May 17, 2011 at 9:47 am

    We don’t use cover crops in our garden.

    Amy

    Reply to goatpod2's comment

  8. Amy on May 17, 2011 at 11:09 am

    I haven’t, but after the wicked crop of weeds and rogue grass that grew in our two gardens this year, you can bet I’ll be doing a weed-preventer (that’s easy to incoporporate – maybe buckwheat?) next year!
    Amy´s last post ..Learning curve

    Reply to Amy's comment

  9. Angela on May 17, 2011 at 11:10 am

    What an informative post. My plot is very, very small, and I’ve just left it alone for the last two winters, but since I’m trying new things this year, this gives me something to think about. Great post!
    Angela´s last post ..In Bloom This May

    Reply to Angela's comment

  10. Wendy on May 17, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    I’ve gone so far as to buy cover crop seeds, but haven’t used them–simply unsure if I got the right kind and wasn’t confident in what I was doing, so thanks for the post!
    Wendy´s last post ..moments in the garden trellises

    Reply to Wendy's comment

  11. WendyM on May 17, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I do use cover crops. My favorite in summer/fall is cowpeas.Not only fixates nitrogen and the plant can be use for green manure or composted but the peas are very one of my favorite legumes. Last fall tried winter rye and it was the only green alive the whole winter until garlic came up. I missed the opportunity for getting crimson clover this spring next one for sure, the main reason I want it is for the flowers.

    Reply to WendyM's comment

  12. John on May 17, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Clover and other flowering cover is wonderful for the bees.

    Reply to John's comment

  13. Seren Dippity on May 18, 2011 at 1:12 am

    I haven’t used cover crops per se because I grow year round. I use raised beds because of our clay soil and so far have kept them busy year round. A couple of beds are full of garlic from October through June. A couple I keep covered to grow greens like lettuces, beets and turnips. And then I grow my broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts in a couple of beds. They do much better here as a fall/winter crop; I can’t keep them alive in the summer between the heat and the cabbage loopers. I plant them in September/October and usually harvest in January. February is usually our coldest month with a couple of deep freezes and then our last frost date is March 15th! At that point if I don’t have the tomatoes out they won’t have time to produce before July’s 100+ temps arrive. I don’t have time for a cover crop!!

    I do grow legumes though. I rotate things like black eyed peas, english peas and beans through each of my raised beds. This year I’m playing around with growing peanuts!
    I tried growing crimson clover underneath all my fruit trees with the intention of improving the soil but can’t seem to get it to grow. I may try again in the fall, perhaps it couldn’t handle the heat.

    I’ve also been trying to use the no till method. I grow deep rooted plants like daikon radishes and okra hoping they go deep below my raised beds into the clay; then I cut the tops and let the roots rot in the ground. (I don’t really like daikons!) After I harvest peas and other leafy things I leave them on top as a mulch. Each spring I add a layer of compost and/or manure.

    Reply to Seren Dippity's comment

  14. sallymander on May 18, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Ok, so I want to use cover crops over winter to improve our depleted garden. I’ve been reading about it quite a bit. Another idea I had was to use some sort of cover crop for weed control while in the growing season. We currently have a horrible weed problem in the garden and I’d like to grow something between the rows. I have a reel mower stashed in the garage and we happened to plant the tomatoes far enough apart that I *could* push it between the rows to keep it down… does this sound viable? I really don’t want anything tall growing. Would a type of clover work?

    In our rose garden, which was first planted by my boyfriend’s grandmother, I have been doing selective weeding to establish violets as green “mulch”. Works well there…violets in the veggie garden too?

    I know marigold is a great all around pest control, as is tansy and nasturtium…maybe buy seed in bulk and cover my in between rows with a mix?

    Reply to sallymander's comment

  15. crt on May 23, 2011 at 12:40 am

    We’ve sown crimson clover in September. It took the winter well; in April I turned most of it over. The difference to our mostly clay soil – from the root development while the clover was growing – was tremendous. Now I guess the decomposition of green matter will improve it further. Definitely something we’ll be doing again this year.

    Reply to crt's comment

  16. crt on May 23, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Buckwheat is a very good weed suppressor if sown thickly (and presumably also improves the chemical structure of the topsoil when you dig it in since the roots go way down and accumulate phosphorus from the lower layers).

    But it’s very frost sensitive. Nevertheless, some volunteer seeds usually survive into spring if you don’t cut it down in time :)

    Reply to crt's comment

  17. A Dream Come True | Chiot's Run on May 26, 2011 at 4:47 am

    […] my my Montmorency cherry I’ll have enough plants. I’m also considering placing in front that area that had the cover crop on it. This will become a large asparagus bed and I think a low box hedge would look really great with […]

    Reply to A Dream Come True | Chiot’s Run's comment

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