Learn how to use cover crops in the garden. Any time from Fall to early winter is the perfect time to cover your garden soil with cover crops. I’ll also explain some of the more popular types of cover crops, how they differ from each other, how to plant cover crops, and what you need to do to those cover crops in the spring.
How to Use Cover Crops in the Garden
Did you know that many cover crops that are meant for winter garden protection are planted beginning in August? Yep. It’s time to start planning out what cover crop seeds you need to buy and where you are going to buy them (this is where I buy my seeds).
While August might be the optimal time to plant cover crops, this doesn’t often work with your most-likely-still-summer-garden-harvesting plans. No worries. Basically, as you are cleaning up your summer garden at the end of the harvest season, simply sow the cover crop seeds in those now-empty garden beds.
You can typically plant cover crops any time your garden beds are empty from August until late November (depending on your garden zone and if you’re in the midst of your deep freezes/snows already…then you might be too late).
What are Cover Crops?
A cover crop is just what it sounds like: a crop that covers the soil of your garden during the off-season. While your garden soil is lying dormant, cover crops can prevent your precious dirt from becoming unproductive.
Cover crops take very little labor while also adding organic material to your soil. Certain cover crops will boost your garden soil with nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and/or many other important nutrients. They also help prevent weeds from taking over your garden, since they spread out nice and thick.
When you are ready to use your garden plot again, you can give the edible cover crops to your livestock or simply use a garden fork (like this) and turn the cover crops into the soil. They will decompose in your soil and give you even MORE nutrients.
There are a few different ways to incorporate the cover crops into your soil in the spring:
- Till it into the soil. If you have a traditional garden layout, you can till the cover crops into the garden soil. Since I have raised beds, I can’t till them, so this option doesn’t work for me.
- Use a garden fork or shovel and roughly hand-till it into the garden soil. This is what I typically do for my cover crops. I simply chop them up and mix it into the raised bed soil with a few more scoopfuls of garden compost.
- Leave it to die naturally in the garden. I’m considering this option for my upcoming spring. This option sees the cover crops as a natural mulch for your garden. Genius! Simply shovel out spots for your spring vegetables, and leave the rest of the cover crops to die naturally.
To have the absolute best garden soil for your next spring, here’s how you should prepare your garden in the fall: Spread your compost (learn how to make your own compost here) in the garden beds and plant cover crops in them. In the spring, use proper crop rotation guide strategies in your garden and then turn the cover crops into the soil.
There are many types of cover crops to choose from and it can be overwhelming. You should pick them based on your climate, what will be planted in that location next season (see: crop rotation guide for suggestions), and the specific characteristics of each type of cover crop (can you feed it to livestock, etc.). Learn more about what your soil needs by getting a soil test done. That soil test will tell you if your soil is lacking nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, or other secondary nutrients. Learn how to get a soil test done here. Learn about soil amendments here.
There are 2 basic types of cover crops: legumes (which boost your nitrogen levels) and non-legumes (which enriches your soil long-term). Both types also create a great biomass that enriches your soil and helps protect the top layer of your soil from getting full of weeds or lose nutrients from being vulnerably bare to the sun.
Here are some popular Cover Crop options:
1. Annual Ryegrass:
Annual Ryegrass is a popular cover crop since grasses are more effective at controlling weeds than legume cover crops. While grasses do NOT increase nitrogen in the soil (like legume cover crops), they DO help with erosion issues as well as weed prevention.
Annual Ryegrass is one of the most winter-hardy cover crops. You can plant annual rye grass in the fall or spring. They are very fast growing in cool seasons. If you want them for winter, plant them in early fall or late summer. Then, in the spring, trap the nutrients by cutting the rye grass and turning it into the soil. It is a great companion to the Crimson Clover Cover Crop (mentioned below).
My personal opinion: I have used annual ryegrass for many years now, and while my rabbits LOVE being fed the long blades of tasty grass, I find it difficult to hand-till into the garden. It is not my favorite cover crop, but it IS very hardy.
Buckwheat is an interesting non-legume cover crop because it is sensitive to cold. It is the best cover crop for spring, summer, and fall. This is an excellent cover crop for any empty regions in your garden (like when your early spring radishes are done, but you aren’t filling the space with fall crops for a few months yet).
Buckwheat keeps the weeds away as well as having flowers that are very attractive to pollinators. It’s also edible: it makes excellent animal fodder (I feed it to my rabbits, and I have heard chickens like it too) AND you can eat it too! Ever heard of buckwheat pancakes? 🙂 It only takes about 40 days to plant, bloom, and incorporate into the soil, so it’s a quick warm-weather cover crop option.
My personal opinion: I love using buckwheat in the summer! After my tomatoes and peppers have become established, I scatter buckwheat seeds around them. They become a beautiful mulch around my tomatoes and peppers. It invites pollinators to my veggies AND it helps keep the bad bugs down (the gently moving buckwheat scares them away and also buckwheat has a scent that some pests don’t like).
3. Crimson Clover:
Crimson Clover is a legume cover crop that not only keeps weeds at bay but also fixes nitrogen issues in the soil. It is one of the most beautiful cover crops you can grow, with stunning red flowers in the spring. Plant it in the fall and till it into the soil in late spring.
Apparently, Crimson Clover is a favorite of earthworms and you will often attract many earthworms to your plot of Crimson Clover. Since earthworms are wonderful for your garden, it’s a great added bonus. Crimson Clover works great when paired with Annual Rye.
My personal opinion: I love planting crimson clover! It is really pretty when it flowers. I would say though that, at least for me, it is the least hardy cover crop and the germination rates have been worse for crimson clover than my other cover crops.
4. Fava Beans:
Fava Bean plants are a relative to Hairy Vetch and are a legume cover crop. They produce tall bushy plants with fragrant flowers. Sow them in early fall for a late fall harvest, or plant in late fall for a spring harvest. Fava beans can be fed to poultry and livestock as well as turned into the soil.
As a legume cover crop, fava beans help with boosting the nitrogen in the soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and preventing weeds. The fragrant flowers are also an attraction for bees and other pollinating insects.
My personal opinion: For some odd reason, I have not tried to grow fava beans before. They sound lovely, but I currently have no experience with them.
5. Hairy Vetch:
Hairy Vetch is a legume cover crop that helps boost nitrogen levels in the soil. Vetch also helps prevent erosion and has pretty purple flowers in the early spring that the bees love . It does well in cold and dry conditions as well as a variety of soil types.
Plant hairy vetch in late summer or early fall, or up to about 30 days before your first frost date, and till it under in the spring. Wait until at least 50% of the plants have flowered before tilling it.
My personal opinion: I LOVE Hairy Vetch as a cover crop! It is easily my favorite cover crop. The leaves have a dainty frond-like appearance that stays green all winter long (at least for me here in garden zone 8a). The roots are a small clump that I can break apart with my shovel. The leaves spread out from the small root clump to protect the rest of the soil. The flowers are so pretty! They can spread a bit aggressively: I have found them taking over my lawn. But I hate having a lawn, so I’m fine with it. Just a head’s up though that they are super happy spreading plants (simply till into the soil before they flower to prevent spreading).
6. Winter Peas:
Winter Peas are a very cold-hardy legume cover crop. This would be a great one in colder regions! One thing I find intriguing about this cover crop is that the plant has shoots come out from it and you can eat the shoots throughout the winter. Plant it 6-8 weeks before your first frost date. Harvest the shoots when they are 6-8 inches tall. The shoots supposedly taste like peas.
Like all legume cover crops, Winter Peas add lots of nitrogen to your soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and keeping weeds at bay. In the spring, they provide pretty pink flowers that attract pollinators. They also are a vine-type cover crop, and the vines will become a mat-like mulch. Winter peas are a great livestock/poultry fodder choice. It’s nice that while other plants are dying in the winter, your winter peas are green and vibrant. Your livestock will thank you (note: deer love it too!).
My personal opinion: I liked growing winter peas. The rabbits loved eating them and we enjoyed eating them, too. They were a little less hardy and had less germination than many of my other cover crops, though. I think it’s because they like colder winters than my mild South Carolina can give them.
7. Winter Rye:
Winter Rye is a wonderful non-legume cover crop, especially for places with harsh winters. It is great at controlling erosion, suppressing weeds, and adding nutrients to your soil. Winter Rye has a wonderful root system that makes it one of the best cover crops for improving your soil. It is also great for livestock grazing. Sow anytime from August through October. It grows very quickly. Plow it into your soil in the spring.
My personal opinion: I have not tried winter rye. I have read that it is best for large pastures and livestock grazing in those pastures. It also likes colder winters than I can give it.
8. Winter Wheat:
This grain cover crop helps improve your soil, reduce weeds, and prevent erosion. Winter Wheat germinates easily and develops quickly compared to some of the other cover crops. Plant it between September through early December. Your livestock will love you for this cover crop too!
My personal opinion: I have not tried winter wheat. I have read that it’s a preferred cover crop for large areas like pasture land. I will be trying some this upcoming winter, though (Winter 2019).
What to do in the Spring with your Cover Crops…
As I mentioned earlier in this post, you can leave the cover crops in your garden and plant around them (and now you’ve got a natural mulch!), or you can till or shovel the cover crops into your garden soil.
If you plan on tilling or shoveling the cover crops into the soil, make sure you do this 3-5 weeks before you plant your spring garden. This gives the cover crops enough time to die and start to decompose, which will enrichen your soil for your upcoming spring planting. So cool!
What Cover Crops will YOU be growing this year? I’d love to know about your garden!
2015 fall: I am going to be planting Hairy Vetch, Winter Peas, and Winter Rye. Here’s hoping my garden gets strong and healthy! I will be planting them in half of my raised beds and using my other raised beds to grow my fall garden.
2019 fall: I used the same cover crops since 2015. This year, however, I’m going to try a cover crop blend that combines many of my favorites into one cover crop mix (I usually have one type in each raised bed, not a combo). The mix also includes diakon radishes, which is great for loosening up heavy clay soils (like I have). Can’t wait to try it!
More Reading on Garden Soil and Gardening:
- How to Properly Test Your Soil
- Organic Soil Amendments ebook
- High Quality Seed Companies for the Organic Gardener
- Common Seed Starting Problems
- How to Plan Your Garden