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Time to Plant Cover Crops

10/8/2013 12:00:00 AM

Tags: cover crops, organic gardening, Cindy Conner, Virginia

Now that the days are still warm and the nights are getting cooler, the time is right for fall cover crops. While protecting your soil on the top, the roots are doing wondrous things beneath. Besides adding organic matter at the end of their lifetime, the living roots contribute to stabilization by encouraging mycorrhizae populations which produce glomalin, “one of the most important substances in promoting and stabilizing soil aggregates” according to Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd ed. If you don’t have that book, you can read it online for free at SARE.

The legumes, such as clovers and vetches, are best known for the nitrogen they capture from the air and store in nodules in their roots. If the plants are returned to the soil before seeds are produced, that nitrogen stays in the soil. I manage my cover crops using only hand tools and show you how to do that in my DVDHairy Vetch - Crimson Clover Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.  The roots are left in the soil when I cut the foliage for compost material. The foliage is returned to the garden bed in the form of compost. In the photo you see the legumes hairy vetch (in the back) and crimson clover (flowering in the foreground). Just so you know, crimson clover and red clover are two different crops. Crimson clover is a common legume in the garden from fall to spring. It flowers about the time of the last spring frost, just in time to make way for the next crop. Although red clover could go into a carefully managed garden rotation, it is best known as an addition to pasture mixes and comes back a second year.

Besides adding new nutrients, cover crops can keep the nutrients that are already there from leaching away. Cereal rye, also known as winter rye, is the best crop for that. In my garden I have my compost piles on a garden bed. In the fall, the finished compost is spread on the beds before the cover crops are planted. The compost piles that are still working are moved to the next bed in the rotation plan. That’s the only time they get turned. I will be starting a new pile with the cornstalks, sweet potato vines, peanut vines, and other garden residue and weeds. That new pile will be built on the new compost bed and the cycle continues. As soon as the compost is moved out of the bed, I plant rye. It sops up any nutrients left behind in the soil, holding them to be released later when I either cut the rye for mulch-in-place or let it grow to seed and use the straw as compost material. My best corn crop follows the rye that follows the compost pile.

As soon as your garden crops are finished for the season, gather the remains for compost material and plant cover crops. It is best if you can get them in a few weeks before the first fall frost, especially the legumes. If you are planting later than that, particularly if you can’t put in cover crops until after the frost, rye and Austrian winter peas are your best bet. Learn more about cover crops at Homeplace Earth. Having a garden filled with cover crops allows you to rest assured through the winter that nature is working as it should to replenish itself. It is also a great boost to see a garden of green all winter and know you don’t have to tend to it. If you were careful in your planning, in the spring the cover crop has finished its cycle when it is time to put the next crop in. Rather than tilling your garden all at once (losing valuable nutrients) you will be harvesting what is left of the cover crop and planting or transplanting the next crop in each bed as it is time. Ya gotta have a plan. Enjoy the adventure of cover crops!

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at

Photo By Cindy Conner

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