Cover Crops

Cover Crops – Hairy Vetch (and others) – Know the Facts Before You Plant

Cover crops for the home garden have gained popularity.

Many articles make every cover crop sound like one you’d want in your garden. And although the articles might mention some of the downside characteristics, most do it in a way that many gardeners wouldn’t recognize them as being possible problems.

Cover crops are a great way to help build healthy soil. BUT, in order to avoid a less-than-desirable outcome it’s best to do your home work first.

Learn the characteristics of the crop and how that will impact what you plan.

One Reader Recently Commented:

  • Not having any previous experience I planted winter rye into my garden beds last fall for the purpose of maintaining living roots through winter.

I assume his purpose for wanting “living roots” was to keep mycorrhizal fungi in the garden over the winter. But you don’t need large areas of cover crops (or living plants) to keep these beneficial fungi in your garden.

Here and there plantings of herbs like oregano, arugula, thyme, and/or sorrel will overwinter and keep these fungi alive and well.

So will strawberries.

Any perennial flowers you have in the garden will do the same.

When warm weather arrives and you plant the rest of your garden the mycorrhizal fungi will multiply and spread throughout your plantings.

He continues:

  • 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.

Winter rye has allelopathic properties. It suppresses the germination of other seeds. That’s why farmers wait at least 2 or 3 weeks after cutting and incorporating the rye into soil before they direct seed another crop like corn.

It can also affect transplants. (It doesn’t always. I dig planting holes into my winter rye stubble for transplanting warm weather crops and have never had a problem.)

And towards the end of his comment he stated:

  • This fall I’m going to try hairy vetch which I hope will not have all the side effects.

Although weak, hairy vetch also has allelopathic properties.

An even less desirable trait is the strong possibility of it becoming a weed. If it reseeds you’ll have it forever. I wrote about my experience with hairy vetch in this post.

To further insure the chances that it’ll be around forever is the fact that it contains “hard” seed. That means that not all the seed will germinate the year you plant. The “hard” seed will wait in the soil and germinate in future years.

All it takes is a plant going to seed unnoticed — and it’s off and running forever. I planted it almost 35 years ago; moved to a new location 18 years ago; and I still have it!!

Costs me time every year to pull it out to try to control it. (The seed came over in perennials I brought from my previous garden.)

Final Thoughts

I gardened many years before I knew about or how to use cover crops. Before I use anything new, caution is my guide.

When finally deciding to use winter rye in my garden, I planted only a small 5 x 3 foot area the first year. After reading so many “nightmare” accounts, I wanted to see first hand what it did and how I could manage it before I did any bigger plantings.

Cover crops can be great for our gardens. But I recommend you do your homework and start small.


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  • Wonderful tips on using cover crops! Now I will research to see the growth habits of my cover crops. I like your advice on planting a small area to see how it grows and what it’s habits are.

  • Theresa,
    Ha ha I guess I now know why I am afraid of cover crops. I don’t want to do the research. Plus I am afraid of an unsightly yard. My yard looks ragged enough without making a mistake on cover crops. I am smack in the middle of a suburban subdivision. My neighbor is always complaining about someone else yard appearance I always direct him to my yard. Then funny as it may be , he always says I have a reason for what I am doing.
    I guess what I am doing is good enough since this is by far my best garden. I am using cover on my garden just not crops.
    Thanks once again, Theresa you have always given me enough insight to make a great decision.
    On second thought I am using cover crops, in a sense, I am planting legumes when the first crop is done or before the first crop.

  • Thanks Toni. I always appreciate your comments.

    Steve, when you said that I had given you enough insight to make a great decision, I considered it great compliment. Each of us has a slightly different situation and we can’t all do everything exactly alike. Gaining insight to make the decision for our circumstances is what is required. Being part of that really makes all this worthwhile!

    Thanks for letting me know your thoughts.

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