I want to plant a cover crop in my garden beds this fall. Which cold-hardy crop do you recommend?
One of your best bets is winter rye (Secale cereale), the grain used to make rye flour (not ryegrass, which is a different plant). Winter rye loves cold weather, and it’s widely adapted, inexpensive and easy to sow. According to Managing Cover Crops Profitably, published by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, rye will even germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees Fahrenheit, and will grow through winter wherever temperatures stay above about 38 degrees. It will suppress winter weeds, improve your soil’s texture, add organic matter, prevent erosion, and attract beneficial insects when it flowers the following spring. It also makes a terrific winter pasture for poultry — or, you can cut the greens periodically to feed to your flock.
Ordering cover crop seeds by mail can be a bit pricey, but saving your own rye seed is easy. Order seed by mail if you can’t find a local supplier, and then sow it in fall. Allow it to grow through the following spring until June, when it will produce seed heads. Snip off the seed heads and then, without threshing the seeds out of the heads, simply plant the heads in fall (see photo above, left). The mature rye plants will be easy to kill after you’ve harvested their seed heads. Cut the stems at soil level with a serrated harvest sickle or large knife, and then use the straw as mulch or compost. (If you don’t own a sickle, Earth Tools offers a nice Italian-made model for only $23; look under the “SHW” category.)
Growing cover crops in unused beds is one of the best things you can do to improve your soil. To learn more about sowing rye and many other kinds of cover crops, I highly recommend the SARE book mentioned earlier; it’s free online.
Photo by Cheryl Long: Winter rye seed heads sown directly into soil in fall will grow to maturity the following spring.
Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one of North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years.