Cover Crops mulching (mentioned) Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Cover crops – Benefits – Some easy ones – One you might want to Rethink.

The few rains we had at the end of July — although brief — were just enough to get some cover crops started in various beds in my garden.

Cover crops have so many uses. They’re an easy and economical way to improve your soil. And now that so many spring/early summer crops are done, it’s a great way to revitalize the soil before fall crops are planted.

It’s one step to helping the soil regain nutrient balance when crops come out of a bed.

Cover crops can

  • help break up hard ground and “open” new ground for your garden. (Yellow clove and rye are especially good for this.)
  • bring up minerals from deep in the soil with their long tap roots (not all have long tap roots — oil seed radish is one that does)
  • as they grow they store soil nutrients; as they decay they release nutrients making them available for use by your garden plants
  • help control erosion if it’s a problem
  • cover the soil and protect it from sun, wind, and beating rain
  • be cut and used as mulch for the next crop
  • smother out weeds (sow densely if this is your purpose)
  • improve soil fertility and structure when they grow AND when your cut them, till them in or leave them as mulch to eventually revert to organic matter
  • and even help keep beneficial insects and pollinators in your garden.

The organic matter these crops make — is as close as you’ll come to a magic elixir for your garden. It is the food of the soil. As the microorganisms in the soil break down the organic material into organic matter, the nutrients released (recylced) back into the soil will be ready to be used by the next crop.

And the soil structure that the organic matters builds

  • increases water absorption
  • increases the capacity to hold the nutrients.
  • Buffers the soil ph -(In other words it makes it just right for most plants – not to acid not too alkaline.)

(Remember this last point when you hear the long promoted saying that pine needles and oak leaves make the soil acid. They DO NOT. Organic matter over a period of time (a year or so) will change the ph to almost neutral. For example -my soil is about 6.7. And it stays that way because of the organic matter.)


I like to use buckwheat in midsummer because it grows quickly and blossoms within about 7 weeks. It attracts beneficial insects and bees. It’s very easy to cut, pull or turn into the soil.

More than likely I’ll plant lettuce for the fall and winter into the beds that have buckwheat in them now.

Sow buckwheat generously to get good coverage.

Oilseed Radish

Out of 4 rows of potatoes I’ve harvest about 1 1/2 rows. I planted oilseed radish in the empty beds. I like them after potatoes because they have an extra long taproot that is said to draw up nutrients for the next crop.

I’ve handled this crop several ways:

  • I’ve turned it under before winter,
  • I’ve pulled it up, covered it with straw and let it decay over the winter. (My favorite way.)

You could let them stay in the ground all winter and turn under in the spring.  It would take a while for them to decay though and you’d have to delay your planting or plan accordingly.

Voles, Potatoes, and Oil seed Radishes

The voles are enjoying my Kennebec potatoes still in the ground.  I’m starting to trap to get the numbers down so I can still be eating  potatoes in a few months.  When the oilseed radishes develop — they’ll like those too.  AND I will have an opportunity to trap the voles I missed earlier.

Thinking of Using Hairy Vetch for a Cover Crop? You might want to rethink it.

Hairy Vetch is highly promoted as a great cover crop especially before planting tomatoes.  You might want to rethink this one long and hard before you fall for the hype of how great it is and be warned about what a nuisance it is. (There are plenty of other great cover crops that are just as good before tomatoes. Field Peas for example.)

Yes — Hairy Vetch does good things for the soil — but it’s a nuisance!   I planted Hairy Vetch more than 25 years ago at my previous garden.  I have never planted it since then.  After 25 years spring growth is still rampant (even in our new location!) and I pull lots and lots of Hairy Vetch EVERY spring. It came over in soil with other plants when we moved here 14 years ago.

There is  never enough time to get it all and it keeps reseeding.  It’s pretty when it blooming; ugly after it seeds and dries.   Looks like weeds in your other stuff. It’s difficult to deal with because of its vining habit.

Final Thoughts

If cover crops are new to you — pick an easy one like Buckwheat and incorporate it into your garden plan.  It’s easy once you get started and your garden will benefit tremendously.

I’ll be talking a lot more about using cover crops for possible disease prevention in future posts.


Related Posts:

Cover Crops – Buckwheat is One of the Easiest

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


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  • Hi Heather,
    I went in and changed the wording to “spring/early summer crops”.
    Lettuce that has seeded for me is done. Beets and spinach are done. Time to plant more.
    All onions are out of the garden, cured and ready for fall/winter use.
    Peas of course were finished in June.
    Kale and chard in some places looking shaby and I should take out and replant.
    Potatoes planted early are done. The late ones are still doing.
    Strawberries and blueberries are done. Figs are still coming. Raspberries dried up because of not rain when they needed it.
    Cukes are almost finished. New ones growing but they may not finish.
    Tomatoes have given the first heavy crop and are making more.
    Peppers and eggplant still going strong.
    After loosing 16 squash plants earlier in the season, looks like I’m going to get late squash. They look great so far. No squash bugs in sight for an entire week!!!!
    Beans are coming up and looking good. My first two plantings didn’t germinate.
    I think I’ve covered most everything, Heather.

  • My kale, chard and collard greens are looking shaby up here in PA also and my Mustard greens were done a few weeks ago so I’ve already started new greens. I ran across some “Living Arugala” at the grocery store that I ate 2/3 of and then planted the rest of the plant, a hydroponically grown root ball. I now have a live arugala plant to yield more greens. I’ll be watching for more living greens at the store and am gradually learning about more edible weeds/plants like the 4ft. high marigolds that are in my garden that I keep having to prune.

  • Voles? Hmmm…maybe you should borrow our cat!

    I really want to try cover crops either this year or next year. Which, if any, of the cover crops you mentioned fix nitrogen? This would seem like a great feature for a cover crop.

  • Hi Dennis,
    I think it’s a great idea to learn more about edible weeds/plants. That’s what I’ve trying to do and will be writing about in future posts. The more greens to get us through the better! 🙂

  • Steve, if you have a cat that really is catching and killing voles — he’s a real prize! Most of the time — cats just catch and play with them — if that.

    Alfalfa, all the clovers (like crimson, red mammoth, sweet clover, white clover), cowpeas, field peas, and soybeans set nitrogen in the soil. So does hairy vetch — but as you know I don’t recommend that. Also peas and snapbeans will do the same if you leave the roots in the ground to decay.

    Hope you’ll try at least one this year. If not — plant some more snapbeans. You’ve probably got just enough time to get a harvest. Then just cut the tops off and leave the roots in the ground. Throw some straw on top — and the bed should be perfect by spring.

  • Theresa, I found your blog a couple weeks ago and am really enjoying it. We live in northern Ontario so our growing season is really short (zone 3b)–in fact, it looks like fall out there already! My peas are done and the beans look right behind them. I’ve replanted more peas and want to do more. I’ve pulled out some of the onions to clear a bed for more spinach. The potato plants are looking terrible–guess it’s time to harvest them. And so on.

    I’ve never tried a cover crop and I’m wondering if there’s any point in trying to do that when it will be cold very soon. I usually like to clear all the beds if possible so they’re ready to go in the spring, and we have a pile of soil to use up so this year I thought I’d top up all the beds. Do I have time to do all of this?

  • Hi Connie,
    Welcome to TMG. So glad you are enjoying it!
    I’m not at all familiar with your weather so I don’t really know how much time you have left before a freeze.

    I can tell you that Oil Seed radish, Winter Rye (the grain), and/or clover can be sown in the fall and will winter over. You would incorporate them into your soil next spring.

    If you decide to do one or more of those, incorporate them next spring as soon as you can work the ground to give them time to decay a bit before you plant your other crops. (At lest 2 weeks or more.)

    If you get some of that pile of soil on some of the beds, the cover crops would be a great way to hold it and improve it at the same time.

    Hope this helps. Keep me posted. I’d love knowing what you end up doing and how it goes.
    All the best,

  • Thanks, Theresa. By “winter over” do you mean they will live through the winter? Even in my climate? So if I plant clover this fall, the clover will still be alive in the spring–at which time I could harvest the leaves and any flowers and dig the roots and stems into the soil? (I mention clover because you can eat that! If you click on my name you’ll go to my blog where there are some articles on that.) That would be a good way to do double duty in my garden.

    Would the same be true if I planted winter rye–would I be able to harvest rye seeds in the spring? For some reason that makes me think of weeds–I bought some straw bales two years ago to use as mulch (which didn’t work and made a mess) and I’ve had no end of trouble since with weeds from it! I was going to try strawbale garden with the remaining bales with year but never got around to it–they’re serving as shelves in the garage, lol, and it would be difficult to extricate them!

  • Connie, all I can tell you is that Oil Seed radish, Winter Rye (the grain), and/or clover can be sown in the fall and are said to winter over. I don’t know if there is a certain degree of cold that makes that null and void or not.

    To harvest the grain of rye you would have to leave it in your ground longer in order to produce the seed. Obviously — if it drops seed it will come up in your garden.

    Regarding your straw bales — whether or not they have lots and lots of seed in them depends on the farmers timeliness in harvesting. If done correctly and at the right time, the bales will hardly have any seed.

    Again, I’d love to know what you decide to do and how it turns out for you.

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