Cover Crops and Compost Crops

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner

The vegetable gardening season is coming to a close, or soon will be, for many gardeners. I look at this time, not as an ending of the season, but as a transition. For me, there is always a gardening season. The summer annual crops that have not yet finished their cycle will soon succumb to the first hard frost. I have seen gardens that were left in that state all through the winter—a mass of tangled and spent plants with cold-tolerant weeds popping up as soon as the depths of winter have passed. On the other hand, I have seen gardens (mine) that are green and vibrant all winter, planted to cover crops that will provide food for the soil and for the compost pile through the next year.

You already have the makings of a compost pile with the spent crops from this year’s garden. Harvest them for your compost pile as you do your fall clean-up. You can chop the stalks of corn and sunflowers into lengths appropriate for your pile with a machete to facilitate your work. My machete is shown in the photo with the cornstalks I used it on.

Beware of ‘Killer Compost’

Spent garden plants and weeds have long been part of compost piles, but gardeners generally need to bring in more materials to produce a larger quantity of compost or to use as mulch. However, bringing in materials from outside sources can be disastrous to your garden. In the 21st century, there are some herbicides that are used in the landscape and agricultural industries that don’t break down in the composting process. It used to be that organic gardeners could gather any leaves, straw, or hay to put on their gardens and it was safe, even if it hadn’t been grown organically. The thought was that by the time it composted there would be no danger from the chemicals, if any, that had been used to grow it. It turns out that these new herbicides are still active in the resulting compost and can be detrimental to your vegetable plants. I wrote a blog post about killer compost in 2011. Google “killer compost” and you will find many more informative articles, some from Mother Earth News, with updated information.

Grow Crops for Composting

Rather than worry about these outside inputs, you can grow crops specific for compost making—enough to provide all your compost needs. Cover crops that you plant now will keep your garden vibrant all winter and will be harvested in the spring and summer. The good news is that you don’t need a tiller to manage them. Let them grow to maturity, or almost to maturity, to give you the full benefit of all the biomass they have to offer (including the quantity of roots they will leave in the soil). These crops can be cut with a sickle, so no matter how small your garden might be, you can fit cover crops into the rotation. Common cover crops planted in the fall include winter rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas. Winter rye can be felled with a sickle when it is shedding pollen and left right in the garden bed to become mulch for the next planting. Or it can be grown to seed, with the resulting straw as mulch for your garden or carbon for the compost pile. Wheat can be grown for the same purpose. Leave it grow to seed and you can have your own homegrown grain, plus straw.

You will find tips on growing cover/compost crops at Homeplace Earth. Knowing which crops to plant when, and how to harvest them, may take some study and some planning. If you haven’t grown cover crops before, or tried them and just didn’t have the timing or the crop right for your situation, keep an open mind and please try again. Your garden will love you for it!

Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she is up to at

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