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Adjusting a Cover Crop Strategy for the Home Gardener

Readers who write to me about cover crops are sometimes under the impression that to use them they need heavy duty equipment.

That impression might come from articles and videos that show farmers on tractors tilling under various cover crops.

It can also come from a gardener using a crop like winter rye without knowing ahead of time how to deal with it. They’ve not planned a strategy that takes into account how difficult winter rye would be to turn into the soil without power tools.

Fortunately, we can use most all cover crops to improve the soil in our home gardens without the need for heavy equipment. With the right strategy,  a hand sickle and/or your other favorite hand tool is all you’ll need.

Know the Characteristics of the Cover Crop

You do have to educate yourself on the characteristics of the cover crop. Once you know that, you can work out a plan that gives you the benefits of the crop with minimum effort.

Example of a Farmer’s Strategy You Can Adapt

Here’s an example of a strategy a farmer might use. Altering it slightly will make it easy to use in your garden.

*The farmer might plant a field in buckwheat.

He might have decided on buckwheat because it can take insoluble rock forms of phosphorous and turn them into soluble forms that vegetables can absorb. It also scavenges calcium and other minor nutrients.

*Whenever the farmer’s strategy dictates, he plows the cover crop into his soil.

*After that he’ll plant another crop like rye which will hold in its green growth all the good stuff the first cover crop put into the soil.

*In the early spring the farmer might till under the rye which will slowly break down and return all those nutrients to the soil for use by whatever crop will follow.

Adapting the Above Strategy for the Home Garden

Here’s how I’m going to adapt that strategy for various beds in my garden this year.

  • This week I’ll plant buckwheat in a few garden beds. With a bit of rain, the buckwheat should germinate quickly (4 to 5 days) and be ready to flower in about 6 weeks.

My garden beds are permanent and have not been tilled in the 18 years since they were first prepared. I just pull back the mulch and plant.

  • With hedge shears I’ll cut it to ground level before it makes seed.

(I don’t use my hand sickle to cut buckwheat because it comes out of the ground too easily when you grab a handful to cut. )

  • I’ll leave the roots in the ground and scatter the cut biomass evenly over the bed.

At the end of October or into November:

  • I’ll sow seed of winter rye. It should come up just fine through the buckwheat roots and cuttings.

Next spring I’ll let the rye grow until the pollen hangs on the seed heads. That’s usually the last part of May in my area.

  • Then I’ll cut it (with my hand sickle) and lay the cuttings on top of the bed.

It’ll then be the perfect time to transplant warm weather crops.

  • Using a hand tool I’ll dig a few holes in the rye stubble for transplants like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cukes, or squash.

The stubble will decay by early or mid- summer. (You can add more mulch to the bed either before or after that happens.)

Final Thoughts

In this strategy, how the soil receives the benefits has been adjusted.

Rather than turning under the cover crops, I’ll let the soil life incorporate them for me.

However, I feel confident the benefits will be about the same. but with very little effort and a couple of hand tools.

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Related Posts:

Winter Rye as a Cover Crop – Two Strategies

Cover Crop Ideas to Help You Make the Choice

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All content including photos is copyrighted by TendingMyGarden.com. All Rights Reserved.

10 comments to Adjusting a Cover Crop Strategy for the Home Gardener

  • Amy

    What a helpful post! Thank you. I just finished school a bit over a week ago. Enough time to uproot a mass of weeds from my Fairfax garden, many of them taller than me! A few surprises of self seeded garlic, onions and determined strawberries. Overall though, it was a jungle. Amazing what not planting for one season does. I had a fellow help me because it was so much. I’ve covered everything with straw (4 bales) apart from the strawberries that are still producing. The question is, what to do now? I suspect the weeds took a lot out of the soil and it’s time to plant a cover crop. Although I’m dying to plant vegetables! Charts indicate I could still plant beets, carrots, lettuce, fall cabbage, broccoli, beans, cucumber (surprising), kale, and spinach. Unfortunately no peas :(. Do you think I should forgo a season of planting and just do a cover crop? I’m considering crimson clover because I like the color & it sounds easy but perhaps there should be some better logic to it than that! Oh yes, and where do you recommend as a source for cover crop seed’s? Cover crop maintenance time is a factor though because I will continue to have school work along with teaching. I like the suggestions in your article but need to check the timing to see if it would work in my zone. Thanks advance for your expert thoughts! Apologies for being out of touch this summer. I was completely consumed with school and lived in Maryland most of the time. Next Monday teaching starts. Looking forward to seeing the kiddos! And catching up with you.

  • rod

    Not. having any previous experience I planted winter rye into my garden beds last fall for the purpose of maintaining living roots through winter. In the spring even after cutting and waiting two weeks direct seeding and transplanting had issues, no germination, stunted growth effecting some things more than others. This fall I’m going to try hairy vetch which I hope will not have all the side effects . I would hope to find a overwintering groundcover that I can interplant

  • Do you broadcast the rye seed or plant in rows?

  • Theresa

    Sorry you were unable to plant this year Amy. I know you’ve been gone and extremely busy.

    Regarding the weeds taking a lot out of your soil — The only reason that’s true is because they seeded and you can’t leave them in the garden or you’ll have a mess next time around. Had they not seeded and you could have left them on the soil, all things taken from the soil would be returned to the soil.

    I know your garden is small, but I would definitely plant a few vegetables (for your encouragement if nothing else) and maybe some small sections of cover crops.

    Be careful of crimson clover. Might be too much for you to handle with your work load. Too many details to go into in the comments section. We’ll talk about it.

    Why not plant the easiest of all — buckwheat.

    You can get cover crops just about from any supplier. You could start by checking Pinetree and go from there.

    Just FYI, I’m planting peas today.

    Rod, in order for winter rye to stop growing after you cut it — you can’t cut until the pollen is hanging on the seed heads. Otherwise – it keeps right on growing.
    It’s allelopathic properties are well known and that’s why if you turn it under you wait several weeks before seeding into it.
    If you cut it rather than turn it under, in my opinion it would be too thick to sow seed into even after several weeks.
    In the years that I’ve transplanted into the winter rye stubble, I’ve NEVER had any problem with it affecting strong transplants.

    I’ll put up a brief post ASAP on hairy vetch. I hope you will wait to purchase any until you read my post.

    Liam, I broadcast the rye seed.

    Theresa

  • Pat

    Theresa,

    I appreciate the step-by-step description of how you manage cover crops.

    I absolutely love buckwheat. I like to keep it growing here and there in my garden for my beneficial insects. I have cut it back a few times to keep it blooming and prevent it from going to seed. But I don’t mind if it does seed. I can always use more buckwheat seed. If there are any strays that make it to the ground to germinate, it is easy enough to pull them up.

    I will email you sometime soon to let you know more about how things have been going here. It has been a good summer all in all!

  • Amy

    Thanks so much for your response Theresa. I will do Buckwheat in a few places and some fall vegetables, including peas :). Xoxo

  • Laura

    I was thinking of planting buckwheat as a cover crop for my raised beds here in CT. But after reading what you wrote above about it making phosphorus more available, I am not sure that is a good plan. My soil tests show very high phosphorus levels already. And very high organic content. I am thinking that less might be more. What do you think? Just shredded leaves instead? Thanks!

  • Theresa

    My gut feeling definitely agrees with you Laura. Shredded leaves will to the job.
    I’d really like to know more about your situation. Like what you use to replenish organic matter each year
    and anything else you do to your soil. Is the the soil “your” soil or bagged soil?
    Thanks Laura.
    Theresa

  • Laura

    Thank you so much for your reply and interest! We started our raised bed garden – yes, I know how you feel about them 🙂 – 10 years ago. We filled them with a mixture of topsoil and compost purchased from a local, very reputable, family run nursery. We didn’t add compost originally and the plants seemed to do fine. I used a variety of mulches over the years and turned them in. As the years went on, I felt I wasn’t “doing enough” (you know how that goes) and I started adding compost from a local horse farm every spring (and sometimes as a mulch in the fall to the tops of the empty beds – ugh!). I have been doing a LOT of reading (how I stumbled upon your site) and have discovered that the horse manure has very little nitrogen and I have really been making my garden soil out of balance and not nourishing my plants. I was advised by the UCONN cooperative extension service to add nitrogen and potassium in the spring to bring it back to balance based on my results (I plan to use organic sources). I know it will take a few years to get the phosphorus down. I will just mulch with straw and turn it in (although I am thinking of skipping the straw under the cucurbits as I think the dreaded squash bugs like to hide there).

    My garden did quite poorly this year. From the bugs galore to the weird weather conditions to the unhealthy plants- I wanted to give up. I grow all my plants from seed and it was sad to see all that work not turn out. After lots of reading (and especially your site which has helped me calm down a bit), I feel hopeful for next spring. Any other suggestions would be appreciated! Thank you!

  • Theresa

    Laura,thanks so much for taking time for this reply to my questions. I want to take time to “digest” the information you’ve provided and perhaps I will be able to write something that will be helpful to you (after the fact of course) and to others who may be taking the same approach.
    I’m glad you’re resisting the urge to give up. Once you simplify and get “balanced” you’ll be fine.
    Theresa

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