Cover Crops

Cover Crops – 2 Reasons Why and 2 Suggestions

For years I was unable to afford the seed for cover crops.  Fortunately for me — crops want to grow and if you follow nature’s example to the best of you ability — no matter what your limitations — you’ll probably have good success in gardening.

So — you might ask — why would I want to grow cover crops now — after all those years of not growing them?

Actually there are two reasons —

  • 1.  Cover crops are a sustainable way for me to obtain mulch to use for my garden.  I’m very dependent on the farmer who supplies my straw and I need to take steps away from that and towards being more self-reliant.

I’m starting small — but I’m starting.  (Never frown on your small beginnings — because even the greatest of endeavors can start small.)

The second reason is an even greater benefit.

  • 2.  By using a variety of cover crops in my garden I’m exercising one of the most important of nature’s principles — diversity. Over a period of time it’ll take my garden to a level of even greater success than what I experience now. (That’s enough to excite any gardener!)

Push for Diversity

There are so many varieties of cover crops from which to choose. Once you become comfortable with one — it would be easy to stay with something that is familiar.  Always remember that there’s more benefit in diversity than monoculture (growing only one crop).

The greatest range of benefits results from a greater range of plants.  Rather than using just one cover crop —   force yourself out of your comfort zone and continue to add another and another to your repertoire of cover crops.

Two Suggestions

#1. Buckwheat – A Great One for Summer — between crops

If you’re new to all this — you’ll want to try buckwheat. It’s one of the easiest to use and the fastest growing.  When your spring crops come out — sow buckwheat rather thickly.  Wait for rain — or water. Cover lightly with straw.  It’ll be up and growing in no time —- and ready to come out in 4 to 6 weeks —- so you can plant another crop.

#2. Think you Don’t Have Room for a Cover Crop?

Sow clover in the same bed with staked crops like pole beans, cukes, tomatoes and eggplant. This can greatly increase your organic matter production without sacrificing beds earmarked for vegetable crop production.  It also increases soil life activity which is just what you want.

I’ve done this with crimson clover but found it a little tall and inconvenient.  Dutch white clover is shorter and not as likely to “get in the way”.

You can sow the clover prior to planting your crops to make sure it gets started good. Then cut planting holes in the clover for transplants.  Or in the case of pole beans clear a narrow row down the center of the bed for direct seeding.

If you miss the time frame for getting the clover started before you plant your crops — go ahead and sow the cover crop with the main crop or even after the main crop is planted.

Final Thought

Cover Crops — what a great and easy way to cover your soil, increase soil microbe activity, increase your organic matter production, store nutrients for the next crop, and provide cover and food for beneficial and bees!


Related Posts:

Sustainable Gardening for Even More Success

Cover Crops – Garden Information – Staying Out of Overwhelm

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

Crop Rotation – Your Garden too small to Rotate Crops? Cover Crops are the Answer

Cover Crops – Benefits – Some Easy Ones

Organic Gardening is easy, efficient, effective — and it’s a lot healthier.


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  • I really like the idea of planting the cover crops so they are growing with my regular crops. I plan on trying this this year. You are so smart; thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

  • So glad you are going to take action on this idea Patricia. It’s a long time practice that will benefit you greatly.
    Keep me posted.

  • Hi Theresa

    I’ve been reading a lot about cover crops recently. What no one ever talks about is what happens when you want to use that space again. In your post you mention “and ready to come out in 4 to 6 weeks —- so you can plant another crop.” What does that mean? Does it naturally die and turn into a nice brown thatch? In my mind I’m picturing having to remove sod!


  • Frank, thank you for such an excellent question. I feel sure there are other new gardeners who may have the same question.

    #1. First let me address “sod”. I think the dictionary definition comes to mind when most people say the word “sod”. That is “the surface of the ground, with the grass growing on it.”

    You should not have “sod” in your garden if you have properly prepared your garden.

    But I am assuming you may have meant an area with thick growth — rather than actually sod.

    #2. Regarding ” —what happens when you want to use that space again.”

    What happens depends on
    —what cover crop you are using,
    —what time of year it is, and
    —what you have planned for that bed.

    One of the most important jobs of a cover crop is to recycle nutrients in the soil. They take up and store nutrients as they grow and in order to put them back into the soil they have to be returned to that soil and allowed to decay — OR compost is made with their biomass and returned to the soil.

    If the cover crop is literally turned under –it will take 2 to 4 weeks to decay depending on the weather and time of year — and then another crop can be planted.

    If the cover crop is pulled up and laid on top of the bed — crops can be planted right away.

    Thickly rooted cover crops like oats and rye can either be turned in —- or cut and the stubble left to decay in the soil.

    One of the reasons I suggest buckwheat is — it is especially easy.

    Just before my buckwheat sets seed I just pull it out of the earth. It’s green and lush and in full bloom when I pull it. Takes me about 5 or 10 minutes to pull thickly planted buckwheat out of one bed. If I lay the buckwheat on top of the bed to decay — which I usually do — I can immediately plant another crop in the bed. After the new stuff is planted I just lay the buckwheat on top as mulch and cover that with some more straw if it’s not thick enough.

    If I incorporate the buckwheat into the soil using a garden fork — I would wait about 2 weeks before planting another crop. The reason for that: Soil organisms will use the nitrogen in the soil to decay the buckwheat when it is incorporated. I’d have to wait to plant crops to make sure those crops would have the nitrogen they need and that it won’t be tied up with the decaying buckwheat

    Regarding your questions: “Does it naturally die and turn into a nice brown thatch?”

    This will depend on the time of year and the cover crop. Here are some examples:
    —Oats planted in the fall will winter kill in really cold weather and turn brown.
    —Buckwheat will winter kill and die as well.
    —Winter Rye planted in the fall will keep right on going and remain lush and green until late spring the following year.

    Again — the reason I suggest buckwheat for beginners is because it is so easy and even beginners should not run into any difficulty with it. It is easy to pull and/or incorporate into the soil.

    In addition to my answer here — I think it will help you to read my post I gave 4 examples of what happens with various cover crops.

    I hope I have clarified for you. If you have more questions please feel free to ask.

    Once you actually take action — I suggest with buckwheat — you’ll be amazed at how easy it is.

    Nothing like removing sod — but even easier than pulling a spring onion.

  • Hi Theresa,
    Thanks for the great explanation about how to use cover crops. I’ve always wondered about everything you described here, including, whether or not to leave the roots in the soil.
    I don’t always have access to straw, so this is the perfect alternative.

  • I’m glad this was helpful Sharon. There are so many way to use cover crops. Once you get to using them more ideas will come. I’m looking forward to planting tomatoes into the root stubble of winter rye this year. That’ll be a first for me and I’m very excited about it. As you said — great way to mulch without using straw.


  • Hi Teresa
    Have a question about using clover for living mulch. I actually purchased some white clover and I would be ready to seed it into the beds with my tomatoes and squash (are peppers ok too?). Now my questions is, wouldn’t the clover compete with the tomatoes, squash etc.? I already planted the vegetables, a few days ago. After the summer vegetables are done I will try the buckwheat. Thank you so much for your blog/website, I have gotten so many ideas from it. Another question, not cover crop related, but compost related. Instead using a compost pile I just dig the kitchen scraps into unused beds, areas. How long after burying the scraps should I wait until I plant something into that bed? Thanks Dagmar

  • Glad you have your white clover, Dagmar and are ready to go with it. It’ll be great for you soil.

    And yes — ok to use with peppers as well.

    Regarding your question about the clover competing with the various vegetables. It’s a good question and one I can only answer based on my experience.

    When I grew clover with my tomatoes I kept it about a 12 inches away from the stem of the tomato. It just didn’t “seem” right to put it up that close — although it’s just my feeling about it. I don’t know for sure that it would be wrong to do that.

    All my advice assumes that the gardener has properly prepared their soil and has a nice amount of organic matter in their soil. If that is the case — I don’t foresee a problem. It never was a problem for me. My tomatoes grew as big as they always grow.

    Another thing — tomatoes, squash, peppers, cukes, eggplant, etc. set down deep roots. In properly prepared soil with a good amount of organic matter — tomato roots can go down/stretch out 10 feet or more!
    Clover roots stay more in the top part of the soil — probably around 6 to 8 inches.

    How quickly your kitchen scraps decay — depends on the weather. In the winter it takes longer because the soil life (microbes) are not as active. In warm weather and with the soil moist — the microbes in the soil will be very active and the scraps will decay relatively quickly. I’ve had them decay in as little as 2 weeks — maybe a day or so less —- except the avocado seeds. 🙂 I know those eventually decay because otherwise I’d have a garden full. But when I find them when planting — I just throw them into an unused area to finish decaying.

    Just check your bed before planting and see if the scraps dug in are completely decayed.

    When I’m planting hot weather crops that need a bit of room —- I don’t pay much attention to kitchen scraps that are not completely decayed and at least a foot or so away from the seedling. They will finish decaying rather quickly by then and my plants never seem bothered by that.

    If I’m planting onions in February or March spaced 4 inches apart — I have to pay attention to scraps not completely decayed. I accidentally dug in some kitchen scraps into a bed planned for onions and they did not decay before it was time to plant. I planted that entire bed except for the one foot area that contained the kitchen scraps. I’ve done that previously and it never seemed to effect my onions.

    Again — I have beds that were originally prepared deeply. They are always covered with mulch and I add organic material each year (in addition to the mulch itself).

    Hope this has given you enough information to determine how you’d like to proceed.

    If you have more questions, just let me know.
    Please keep me informed and let me know how you liked using the clover as a cover crop.
    Wishing you great success with it, Dagmar!

  • Thank you so much for your reply. I’ll stay away a good distance from the tomatoes etc. My beds are not that great yet, but trying to improve with cover crops. Will see how it goes. I also read that if you mow/cut your clover it will not compete for nutrients as much, don’t know if that’s true, but could use the cut off material as mulch. I’ll try and see. I’m in warm/hot FL and I guess my kitchen scraps should decay quickly.
    Thanks again

  • Whenever you lay any “green” materials on a bed as mulch it does NOT compete for nutrients. “Green” stuff only competes when it’s turned under and is in the process of decay. That’s when the microbes use the available nitrogen to work on breaking it down and then it may deprive other plants of nitrogen. As long as it’s on top of the soil there is absolutely no problem.

    When I underplanted tomatoes with red crimson clover I cut it because it got too tall to suit me. Then I just laid the cut stuff on top as mulch. White clover is much shorter and you may not want to cut it.

    And by the way, the roots do your soil a world of good. It will really help your soil not only after it’s finished — but while it’s growing.

    Keep in mind this underplanting of clover is done by a lot of good gardeners. You will be in good company and I think you will have great success Dagmar.

  • As we have a sandy soil in my region along the North Sea, most organic gardeners work with various cover crops. As you have suggested, I use all sorts of plants in rotation: winter rye, phacelia, mustard, buckwheat, oil radish,etc. The winter rye sowed in the fall and turned under as early as possible in March is particularly effective, I find. For many older gardeners winter rye can be a problem. I sow rows of rye about 30 cms apart. It is easy to turn these narrow rows under in the spring. Winter rye, moreover, needs sufficient time before planting other crops. Apparently its roots effuse certain kinds of phytochemicals that hinder the germination of other plants. The spreading of experience with cover crops in your homepage is salient for many new gardeners.

  • Hi Millard —
    Thanks so much for this input on using cover crops.
    It was particularly of interest to me that most organic gardeners in your area work with cover crops as you have sandy soil. I have sandy soil as well and it “eats” organic matter like crazy in hot weather. I hear people complain about clay soil — but improved clay soil outperforms improved sandy soil any day.

    I am glad you brought up rotation of cover crops. It calls attention to the fact that gardeners should rotate cover crops as well as vegetable crops in the interest of diversity and thus – good soil health.

    If anyone is unable to do the labor to turn under the strong roots of winter rye — they just need a strategy. I love winter rye — but don’t want to have to turn it under. I planted winter rye last fall and cut it down in April in beds I wanted hot weather crops in. I left the roots except for digging a spot for the seedlings I wanted to put in. The roots decay in the ground and act as mulch for the bed. I have been extremely pleased with the results.

    As you said — if the gardener turns under the rye and plans to seed a crop in the bed — they will have to wait for a bit until the allopathic effects – that would prevent another species of seed from germinating – dissipate (No problem of course with seedlings that are already up and running.)

    And yes, I agree that information about cover crops is one of the most important things gardeners can do for their soil and if one gets started on cover crops as a new gardener — the road ahead will be even easier.

    Thanks so much your detailed comment Millard.

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