garden cover crops

5 Best Garden Cover Crops for Fall

My summer vegetable gardens are mostly spent for the season, so I find myself thinking about ordering seeds for garden cover crops. I have mostly raised beds and find that the soil can easily become depleted of nutrients over time.  

Planting fall garden cover crops has become my secret weapon for soil replenishment. I didn’t always utilize this gardening method and couldn’t figure out why each year my harvest was getting smaller and smaller and the plants just didn’t look as good.

I tried adding compost, soil additives like bone meal, and organic fertilizers, but it wasn’t until I started implementing the permaculture methods of soil building using cover crops that my garden finally improved and yields of veggies became prolific again. 

Cover crops, also known as green manures, are excellent tools for gardeners. They lessen soil erosion during the winter, add organic material when turned under in the spring at the end of their growing cycle, improve soil quality and add valuable nutrients.  When they decompose, the nutrients are released as they break down much like composting in-situ (in-place). As you can see there are many reasons to start using cover crops…and all of them are good!

garden cover crops
Garden Cover Crops - Winter Kill Oats

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Getting Started

When deciding what type of garden cover crop to plant, you’ll want to evaluate your specific needs of your garden to determine which cover crops to use. This guide will help you learn how to identify the cover crops that will benefit your backyard garden! Here are my top 5 fall cover crops for every need!

3 Types of Garden Cover Crops

There are three main types of cool season cover crops, including grasses, legumes and broadleaves including brassicas.

1. Legumes

Legumes—plants such as clovers and hairy vetch—can produce up to 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre in the soil. If you inoculate seeds with rhizobia bacteria, which live on the roots of legumes and do the work of nitrogen fixation, you can get the best results. Many seed suppliers offer pre-inoculated seed. Hairy vetch and medium red clover are both reliable options that won’t break the bank.

2. Grasses

Grasses such as oats and winter rye are garden cover crops that farmers and gardeners in northern areas can plant to help enrich the soil and build biomass. Their roots help break up compacted clay soil and are very cold hardy, allowing farmers and gardeners in northern regions to overwinter their cover crops. Their leaves also improve water infiltration by slowing down the movement of water from rain or overhead irrigation.

3. Others

Broadleaves – Other cover crops, such as buckwheat and brassicas, phacelia and have their own benefits. Buckwheat accumulates phosphorus while brassica cover crops have roots that burrow deeply into the subsoil, improving drainage. Phacelia is a great early spring bee plant. These germinate quickly to shade out weeds and are easy to turn in for nutrient benefits.

garden cover crops

Which Cover Crop is right for you?

While there are many types of fall garden cover crops to choose from, the list below highlights my top 5 favorites that I’ve used over the years to mitigate a variety of problems on my homestead. Hopefully, you will find one suited to your needs as well.  As with any gardening efforts, be sure to check to see if these are suited to your particular climate. 

  1. Rye: Rye is a common cover crop in the Northeast, and for good reason. It’s cheap and easy to get, can be seeded late into fall, and will survive the winter. It produces lots of organic matter, which helps suppress weeds in the spring. Often called “winter rye” or “perennial ryegrass”, This crop is perfect for beginning gardeners who want to try their hand at planting a cover crop.
  2. Oats: planted in late summer or fall will grow quickly, similar to winter rye. Fall-planted oats grow some organic matter, crowd out weeds, prevent erosion, and provide winter-killed ground cover that is easily incorporated for early spring vegetables. When mixed with a legume such as peas, they provide a lot of nitrogen to the following crop. Winter kill is not always guaranteed so be sure to check for survivors that need managing in spring.
  3. Field peas: fix nitrogen and winter-kill, making them a great beginner’s cover crop. Field peas can be broadcast and incorporated or sown in close rows. To get a thick stand, sow peas in spring or late summer. Field peas will suppress weeds if sown at the right time of year. In spring after a fall crop, incorporate the plant matter well or use as mulch by transplanting through the debris. Sow in early spring ahead of fall greens, or in late summer after early crops come out.
  4. Buckwheat: is a fast-growing crop that can be used to fill a gap in the growing season. It is one of the best cover crops for weed suppression, especially in poor or worn-out soils and newly tilled land. This quick-growing tender annual also builds organic matter. For a fall crop, sow in late August/early September. Just make sure your crop does not set seed, as buckwheat can be weedy if allowed to self sow. As long as no seeds form—which can be prevented by mowing or cultivating at flowering—simply let the buckwheat winter kill and incorporate in the spring if necessary.
  5. Red clover: is a nitrogen-fixing perennial with deep roots that draw nutrients from below the root line, making them accessible to vegetable crops that follow. It grows dense, matted foliage and thick roots that are very effective at building organic matter too. Red clover is a perennial and will not winter kill. Sow in spring, summer or fall, and mow to prevent seed set. In the following spring, after the first season, mow and turn well to incorporate it back into the soil.

Know When to plant

It’s important to know what you want from your garden cover crops before selecting which ones to plant. The two charts here offer some ideas on how to make the most of your cover crops, depending on their use and your goals. Be sure to check out the “Notes” section for more detailed info.

garden cover crops
garden cover crops

Notes

Weed Suppression: Cover crops can be a valuable tool for weed suppression. If you’re looking to choke out weeds, consider planting winter-kill fall garden cover crops. These cover crops will put on most growth in early spring, which is when they’re most effective at suppressing any early spring weeds.

Spring Uses: Over-wintering cover crops provide the greatest benefit in the springtime. They put on a lot of growth in April. Try to plant these crops in areas where you will be transplanting tomatoes, peppers, winter squash and brassicas in late May. The timing works well for all of these vegetables.

Resting the Soil: Rye and red clover planted in the fall will grow vigorously in the spring, making it a good option for resting an area for a season. You can mow this cover crop on a tall setting, but be sure to catch it before it flowers.

garden cover crops

How to Plant the Seeds

Garden Cover crops are always seeded directly in the ground, rather than transplanted from pots. Here is the 5 step process I use:

  1. Loosen the top 3 to 4 inches of soil with a pitchfork or rake to remove existing vegetation.
  2. Smooth out the loosened soil with a rake and make an even seed bed.
  3. To sow your seed, spread it evenly over your prepared seed bed. You can do this by hand or with a spreader at the rate indicated on the seed package—from one to four pounds per 1,000 square feet depending on the variety.
  4. Rake the soil again after you’ve finished putting the seeds in the ground. The depth of your raking depends on what kind of seed you’re planting; small seeds should stay close to the surface, so just give those a very light rake; larger seeds need to go deeper, so rake the soil a bit harder for those.
  5. Keep the seedbed moist until germination occurs. 

In Conclusion

Taking the tips provided above, you should be able to find some great fall garden cover crops that will work in your garden and help you realize the benefits I’ve described. Happy growing!

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