Best Winter Cover Crops

Plant your plots in fall to build nutrient-rich soil that vegetables will appreciate months later, in spring.

| October/November 2020

Photo by Adobe Stock/rsooll

Cover crops have many benefits for your garden soil, and for the food crops you’ll later plant in their place. (See “5 Benefits of Cover Crops,” below) To reap these benefits, you’ll need to cultivate strong stands of growth that can suppress weeds and add lots of organic material, or “biomass.” Late summer and fall are the easiest times to start cover crops, because the crops won’t need to compete with any other plants in your garden except weeds. And cover crops planted late in the season have a long period in which to grow — throughout winter, for those that aren’t frost-sensitive.

Here are some recommendations for winter cover crops, based on my decades of gardening experience at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. At Twin Oaks, we practice intensive vegetable gardening, both outdoors and within hoop houses, to feed about 100 people year-round. The fertile, productive soil that cover cropping brings us helps feed our residents on a daily basis.

Crop Choice and Timing

Timing is critical, because you’ll be planting these cover crops late in the traditional growing season. Work back from your area’s first frost date to choose from the options below. For a frame of reference, I’ve included the applicable dates for Twin Oaks (Zone 7, with an average first frost date of October 15). “Frost-killed” cover crops will be killed by frost. “Winterkilled” means the plants will be killed by midwinter temperatures. “Winter-hardy” means the plants will live through winter.

Hairy vetch. Photo by Adobe Stock/sahara frost

60 to 80 days before first frost (July 26 through Aug. 17 at Twin Oaks). Frost-killed: buckwheat; sunn hemp; soybeans; Southern peas; spring peas; lablab; Japanese millet; sorghum-sudangrass hybrids. Winterkilled: Austrian winter peas (Zone 6 or lower); oats. Winter-hardy: crimson and red clovers. Note: Don’t sow oats too early, or they may set seed in fall.

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