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Cover Crops – Helping a Reader Begin to Deal with a Problem

We’ve probably all been excited about an idea and put it into action before we really knew what we were getting into.

This human tendency is one of the main reasons that gardeners can experience a different outcome with cover crops than what they desire.

A new reader, Luke,recently wrote to me and seems to be experiencing this very thing.

He writes:

          Last fall we seeded our entire 500 sq ft garden with dutch white clover. —- it’ s (now) too thick to hoe, rake down or up, etc.  

          I would prefer not to use any machinery to cut it back so it will die, but our first experiment of picking it all by hand to try and stress it out so it would die back did not work.

         Do you have any good suggestions for naturally killing this cover crop? My only current fallback options are to lay plastic over it (I don’t like plastic) or cut it with my weed eater (would rather not use machinery) and of course I don’t want to use any chemicals!

What’s Needed to Avoid Problems and Be Successful with Cover Crops?

In order for cover crops to be successful (by your definition of what you want to achieve) in YOUR garden, you need to do your homework BEFORE you plant. Even then, you have to accept the fact that you’re not going to know exactly how things will go until you have some hands-on experience growing that particular cover crop.

Each cover crop has certain characteristics and if you can plan your strategy around those characteristics you’ll be good to go.

For example:

Several years back I researched winter rye. Believe me, there are lots of horror stories on the internet from gardeners about planting winter rye.

One characteristics is that it puts down deep roots that really hold the soil and growth takes off in the spring; so, if your plan is to incorporate it into the soil in the spring and you want to use only hand tools, you may not want to use winter rye.

I use only hand tools, and in spite of that, I use winter rye all the time and LOVE it! Because I plan my strategy to work with the characteristics of the plant:

  • I designate certain beds for hot weather crops like tomatoes cukes, peppers, and squash the fall before planting.
  • Then plant winter rye in some of those beds in October.
  • Allow the rye to grow into May. (Gets about 5 feet tall or more.) When the pollen is heavy on the heads of the rye, I cut the the rye to the ground using only a hand sickle. I lay it back on top of the stubble as mulch.
  • When it’s time to plant warm weather crops, I dig a hole into the stubble. (6 to 12 inch circumference for the hole) After loosening the soil I plant the seedling.
  • At this point, although the stubble and the cut biomass is still acting as a mulch, I add additional mulch on top.
  • By late summer the stubble and the roots have decayed and I can dig into the bed with my hand.

It’s Always Best to Start Small with a Cover Crop You’ve Had No Experience Growing.

Luke planted his entire garden in white clover. Five Hundred square feet is a lot of area to plant with any cover crop that you’ve not grown before; especially a perennial (lasting indefinitely) crop that can keep coming back from year to year.

It doesn’t have to return each year, but being perennial, it can.

My Experiences with White Clover

I’ve had it growing as an outside border for a island flower bed and had it disappear the second year never to return.

Last year I planted white clover in several paths of my garden. I wanted the living roots of the clover in the path to support mychorhrizal fungi which are so beneficial to plants by greatly extending their reach into the soil to get nutrients.

I’m not sure how aggressive white clover will be in my garden, so I didn’t sow the seed everywhere, just in a few of the paths in order that I could keep a eye on it and see what it does.

I noticed today that some of the seed must have washed into a couple of beds because I found clover growing in the beds rather than the paths. My hand tool helped me remove it in a flash, but I would not want to have been removing 500 sq. feet of it.

Plastic?

Like Luke, I don’t like plastic either and would not use it to kill the plants.

The most important reason not to use it is nature’s principle of air circulation, which is absolutely necessary to good soil health. Soil can’t breath properly with plastic on it, and soil life dies.

Chemicals?

That would seem to me to defeat the purpose of organic gardening. So, like Luke, it’s not something I would do.

Use the Problem as an Opportunity to Learn by Trying Several Things

If this 500 sq feet of white clover was mine I would probably try several things. The reason I’d try several is because I’d learn in one season how each works. This would serve me well in the future.

Possible Solutions

  • Leave a 3 foot border of white clover around the 500 sq foot area. The thick clover should keep most of weeds out of the garden and probably out of most of the 3 foot border.

Mark off garden beds and paths for planning purposes.

  • In beds where hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cukes and squash will go, leave the clover but dig planting holes into it, as I did with the winter rye stubble. White clover is good for underplanting these crops and acts as a living mulch. ( If you find that the clover dies out, then you’ll need to add more mulch.)
  • Use a thick layers of mulch (such as straw, pine tags, aged wood chips) on top of the clover where some of the hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cukes and squash will go. (See if the heavy mulch kills the clover and note how long it takes.) In the meantime, dig planting holes and plant your seedlings.
  • Leave the clover in paths to see what happens. Keep an eye out that it doesn’t spread into your beds after you establish them.
  • In beds that definitely need to be free of the clover in order that you may plant seed right now AND IF you want to use hand tools: you can dig it out with a shovel, shake the soil from the clump, and turn the clumps upside down and lay on top of a path or a bed to recycle back into the soil. (Just watch  to make sure it doesn’t continue to grow after a while.)

If you don’t have time for that, you might want to use machinery this one last time.

Also, keep in mind that clover will reseed. Where you don’t want that, cut it at least by the time it blooms. (Weed eater seems the easiest way.)

Final Thoughts

Cover crops are great for your garden and easy to work with.  Just plan your cover crop strategy to fit your needs AND the characteristics of the cover crop.

By doing a bit of research up front and then starting small, you’ll avoid problems.  And if you do have some, they won’t be on a grand scale.

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Related Posts:

Cover Crops – Your Purpose Determines When you Cut or Incorporate into the Soil

Comments on a Readers Plan – Cover Crops – Turning the Soil and More 

Crop Rotation – Your Garden Too Small to Rotate Crops – Cover Crops are the Answer

Cover Crops – Benefits – Some Easy Ones

Microbes- Mycorrhizal Fungi – Helping Your Garden Succeed

Want to Increase Your Garden’s Chances of Success Next Year

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

20 comments to Cover Crops – Helping a Reader Begin to Deal with a Problem

  • Mike Berna

    Theresa, this was a great article for me. For years, I’ve used annual rye as my winter cover crop (I’m zone 5A) and never was satisfied. Never felt that I was getting the amount of organic material that I wanted and, in (early) spring, of course there was really nothing to use as mulch. Thought that buckwheat might be good, but tried it once and allowed it to go to seed (I was lazy) and years later I still see it come up sometimes. Gonna try winter rye this coming winter and follow your advice. I read your method last year in your book, and this year I’m going to use it in next years tomato beds. Wish me luck. Mr Tomatohead

  • Steve

    Theresa,
    Again you are an amazing resource for information. I have been curious about cover crops. With the amount of energy I want to put in the garden (minimal) I think I will pass on cover crops. I will stick to wood chips. No regrowth to worry about. By many accounts the wood chips will provide what is needed in the garden. Though I don’t know it first hand I am trusting others previous experiences. I love dirt but I don’t want to play in it too much. Lazy I guess. I will keep you posted on how the wood chips provide in my third growing season.
    Happy Easter
    Jesus is risen He is risen indeed
    Steve

  • Theresa

    Hey Mr. Tomatohead!
    So glad you benefited from the article.
    I think you will really enjoy using the winter rye in the manner that I use it, Mike. It will give you a lot of biomass and it really does great stuff to the soil.
    Appreciate your comment!

    Steve,
    Although I’m a big fan of wood chips as mulch, I don’t know that they give the soil everything needed. Also, nature is strong and even working with her a little can give an abundance of food, but I would like to continually improve the quality of the food I grow. So as I learn, I am continually applying the information.

    As far as wanting to put minimal amount of time into the garden — that’s how I “discovered” a lot of what I do. I didn’t have lot of time to spend gardening and still don’t, so I found lots of easy way that take very little time. However, we depend heavily on our garden for our food, so obviously some effort is required.

    Theresa

  • Steve

    Theresa
    I am posting a link from an advocate for wood chips. I would welcome your thoughts on the 7 minute video. I think there may be a controversial item early on in the video. I will not be offended if you critic the video. After all, all I am trying to do is learn from people like you and Paul Gautschi.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8FzGumhXJY

    Thanks again for all you do.
    Steve

  • Theresa

    Steve, I guess the “controversial item” you mentioned is whether or not creosote leaks into the soil and ground water. The fellow on the video (Paul Gautschi) says he sees no evidence that it does. There is plenty of information about that online – so we won’t rehash that now. However, just for the record, I wouldn’t use it. My policy is to go towards what I want and know rather than to see how close I can get to the line of demarcation.

    Regarding wood chips, he says they are a great mulch and indeed they are. In the past when I had access to them I used them all the time. You can review my post on wood chips here: http://tendingmygarden.com/wood-chips-for-mulch-answering-a-readers-question/

    I had thought perhaps the video would address your previous comment: “By many accounts the wood chips will provide what is needed in the garden.” However, Paul Gautschi does not address that directly in this video, but indirectly when he says that he thinks rock dust and rocks are wonderful for the garden. They add minerals to the soil. So obviously, wood chips are not his only way of soil improvement.

    Theresa

  • Steve

    Theresa,
    Thanks, I did not say much about Paul or the video for a reason. I just wanted the straight up scoop from you. After having a few conversations with you, I was pretty sure you would share what was on your mind. I think I know Paul is controversial. I like to listen to him though. I would never use creosote in the garden, nor would I do anything stupid, I hope. I did not want to bore you with the many videos Paul has been the focus of. Anyway My garden is now about 85% decomposed wood chips and I think it is going to produce well this year. If peas are any indicator of how it will perform, the garden will do the best since I put about 12-14 inches of wood chips on the ground 3 1/2 years ago. I read the link on wood chips. Again am thankful for your advice. I pray all is well with you.
    Steve

  • Theresa

    I’m never bored with Paul’s videos, Steve. I think it wonderful that you and other readers send me various things to look at. It helps me to know what folks are thinking and what I need to address on TMG – if anything. Readers of TMG are very special, at least in my opinion. I think of you as extended family and am always glad to hear from you on the site or via personal email. And yes, you are correct Steve, I will be happy to share what is on my mind. I can at least give my opinion and my experience. I appreciate your feeling comfortable enough to ask any questions you have and your asking for my opinion.

    Bill and I are still walking in the direction we want for the outcome to the severe situation we are experiencing. It hasn’t been easy, but we are encouraged that things will go towards an upswing.

    Thanks Steve, for commenting.
    Theresa

  • Toni Brock

    Theresa,
    Do you use rock dust or anything to replace minerals in your garden soil?

  • Theresa

    I have in the last year, used rock dust in several beds Toni.
    Theresa

  • Bonnie Plesco

    Been doing lots of readings here and in your book on cover crops. I am just putting in my fall garden so I have time to decide what to do. I live in Florida and start a Fall garden in September. If we have no frost, most of the plants will continue on into the spring. I have to stop growing by July. I pull everything out and have a bare dirt until September. I don’t think a cover crop is for me because we get heavy rains from mid June through August and very high temps. What can I put over my garden to protect my soil and keep it alive and healthy. I do have access to lots of oak leaves. Maybe cover the garden in chopped leaves and straw for the summer and then push them aside when I plant in September? What would you do?

    Bonnie

  • Theresa

    Your idea of oak leaves and straw is perfect Bonnie! Go for it girl and pile it on! And you don’t even have to chop the leaves unless you want to. Covering that soil is absolutely imperative to your success.

    You’d still do well with a cover crop. Start out with buckwheat. It’s really the easiest. And it will really help your soil!! (Sow thickly — rather than thinly.) You may want to review this post http://tendingmygarden.com/cover-crops-buckwheat-is-one-of-the-easiest/
    And by the way, your heavy rains are even more reason to use cover crops.
    Theresa

  • Bonnie Plesco

    Again, thanks for the great info. Who knew i could grow a cover crop in just a couple months. My soil is going to love it.
    Acorns are falling early this year, I have to clean the driveway daily now. Come January or so the oak leaves will be everywhere…….Im ready!

    Thanks
    Bonnie

  • Theresa

    You’re running towards great success Bonnie and I’m so proud of you! Keep it up and keep me posted.
    Theresa

  • Heather

    After reading your newest article today I went in search of others you had written on winter rye as that is what I planted in my raised garden beds this winter. They look like little chia pets.

    I’ve cut and then dug over 4 beds so far. In one I just turned over the soil and planted my onions and in the other ones, I was going to rototill as I’ve been reading stories on how it’s almost impossible to get rid of it.

    But… in reading your information above, I’m inclined to just leave it to grow, cut it down when I’m going to plant and dig a hole or trench where I’m planting and let it die out during the summer. Is that correct?

    That would be a lot less work and more beneficial to the soil.

  • Theresa

    Heather, if I had to turn under rye I would never be able to use it!!
    That is why I have written so much about it.
    My strategy when I plant rye is to cut when the pollen is on the heads. Leave the biomass on top of the beds. Dig a planting hole for a warm weather crop (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, or whatever) and plant it.
    The roots of the rye die out and decay during the summer.
    It is NOT the cover crop that I would use if I wanted to plant early crops in that bed (onions, lettuces, etc.)

    More questions? Please ask.
    A suggestion: have a plan before you plant a cover crop like rye that can be a nightmare if you don’t know it’s habits. Search my site or write to me. You know I will help you if I can.
    Theresa

  • Theresa

    PS
    In order for the rye to die, you have to cut it when the pollen is on the seed heads or it will keep growing.
    Pictures showing the pollen are in this post: http://tendingmygarden.com/winter-rye-as-a-cover-crop-2-strategies/
    (I’ve add more clarification to this comment below – April 22nd)

  • Heather

    LOL… well it looks like I’m going to have an interesting year in the garden as I didn’t do my research before planting.

    Would you just use straw as a mulch for things like onions, lettuce etc… over the winter or something else?

    Thanks so much

  • Theresa

    I use straw on just about every thing (including onions, lettuces, etc) because it’s what I can get.
    I use it all year round.

  • Theresa

    Heather, I’m not sure how it happened but a link to your post on rye showed up in the comments section when I went to the admin area of TMG today.

    Glad it did because I had the opportunity to read what you had written.
    I’m not sure I understand just what your situation was or is. It seemed in your first post that you were saying how pleased you were with turning under the rye.

    Anyway — I wanted to add a few more things to what I told you.

    Farmers with big equipment sometimes plant winter rye and then incorporate in the spring when it’s 12 to 18 inches tall into the soil. They avoid “grow-back” that way — at least most of the time.

    If they were to just cut it, it would definitely continue to grow until it set pollen.

    In addition, when they incorporate the young succulent rye into the soil, they usually wait a certain amount of time before planting because of rye’s ability to inhibit germination of seed.

    I would think this particular strategy for rye using heavy duty equipment would not be practical for the home gardener. Rye — as you now know — is just too hard to deal with.

    Also, from reading the posts I recommended to you — you know an easy way to use rye.

    But based on what you said, “I cut the rye, turn it over, chopped the clumps, hoed and planted. ”
    You may not have grow-back depending on how well you incorporated the young rye. Also it sounds as if you will use a rototiller which will chop the rye more. (I don’t use anything but hand tools.)

    Hope this clarifies. I’d love to know what happens.
    Let me know if you have questions.
    Theresa

  • Heather

    Thanks so much Theresa. Not sure how a link showed up, but I did link to your article in my blog post to give you credit for all your valuable information.

    The problem all stemmed from not doing my homework. So I wrote one post on how happy I was with the winter rye and how lovely the soil was and then in researching and finding your post, I realised that there were some downsides to it as well so wrote another post.

    I normally only use hand tools as well, especially as it’s raised garden but I figured that the rye should be chopped into finer bits in order that I won’t get the grow back. We have a small rototiller that is manageable so I’m going to see if that cuts things up finer and gets rid of the clumps caused by the roots.

    Not an ideal situation, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the results will surprise me. It is definitely more work than I usually have to do when planting in the spring, but hopefully, the additional nutrients to the soil will be worth it.

    I’ll let you know how it goes and thanks again, your input is much appreciated.

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