Cover Crops Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Cover Crops – Ideas to Help you Make the Choice

I received a message from Rita who is a member of a forum I frequent. To the best of my knowledge she does not read TMG, but was asking about cover crops.

Wanting to incorporate their use into her garden plans, she writes, “I am getting real confused, which is a disability for me….. so I need help deciding what to do and what to use.”

All of us can certainly relate to that feeling.  Anything we want to do, but don’t know much about, disables us to one degree or the other and can limit what we do if we allow it. It can also reduce our chances of success or effectiveness in the doing.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way with cover crops. Although nothing takes the place of the knowledge you gain when actually growing a crop, if we learn the characteristics of the cover crop we choose before we plant, we can plan our strategy around those characteristics.

Since I use only hand tools to tend my garden and borders, and also have trouble standing and walking, my strategies are planned accordingly. They may be totally different than someone who wants to till to incorporate cover crops.

Choosing a Cover Crop to Incorporate into the Soil or Use on Top as a Mulch.

Rita listed this use as her #1 reason for wanting to grow cover crops.  She has a wide variety of cover crops to choose from that will accomplish this for her. But in the process of reading about various ones, she finds it confusing about which one might be the best for her situation.

All cover crops can be beneficially incorporated into the soil, and many (if not all) can be cut and used on top as mulch. Growing a variety of cover crops over a period of time will give you the best possible results. Thus, I wouldn’t worry too much about which one will be “best” in that regard.

A Determining Factor Can Help Make the Choice Easier

In order to decide which cover crop to use first, choose another determining factor to help make your choice an easy one.

  • How much time you have (before you want to plant your veggie crops) and need (to produce the growth you want from the cover crops) and/or
  • what seasonal conditions they need for germination and growth (spring or fall)

can narrow the field and make it easy for you to choose. The main thing is to choose one and try it.  You can always try another one.

Some Cover Crops That Can Be Planted in the Spring

According to the Cover Crop Comparison Chart at Johnny’s Select Seed (
you can sow small grain cover crops like barley, oats,  and wheat in the spring.

Buckwheat is another good one, although the biomass is not as much as from other small grain crops. But it’s such an easy crop to work with that beginners will find it very encouraging. Sow it thickly for the best results and the most biomass.

oats and field peas

Oats and field peas.

Consider the legumes, cowpeas and field peas, for spring planting as well.

Any of the above mentioned cover crops can be incorporated into the soil once they’ve attained the growth you want.  If you want biomass to cut and use as mulch, let them grow more, but cut them before they set seed.  There are two reasons for this:

  • Cover crops have the most nutrients just before they set seed.
  • Unless you are saving seed for next time, you don’t want them to set seed and drop the seed in your garden.

It’s  easy to see the seed forming on cover crops.  So just let them grow until you see flowers, heavy pollen, or the seed forming.

To the left is the small amount of winter rye I allowed to set seed for the next year's crop. It was about 4 to 5 feet tall. Picture was taken in May.

To the left is the small amount of winter rye I allowed to set seed for the next year’s crop. It was about 4 to 5 feet tall. Picture was taken in May.

Also Take into Consideration How You Will Work with Your Cover Crops

All my cover crops strategies take into consideration that I only use hand tools, rather than power tools.

Thus, if I choose to incorporate a crop into the soil by turning the soil (which I seldom do), I have to be prepared and able to do it with a shovel. Any crops with strong root systems that would be impossible (for me physically) to turn under, are used in a manner that allows them to rot in the ground with no effort on my part. (So easy. And the results are great.)

If I cut biomass (vegetation resulting from growth of the plant), I do it with a hand sickle.  I plan my strategies to allow most all cover crop roots to rot in the ground and use the biomass on top as mulch.

A Cover Crop to Use as a Yard Grass?

Another thing Rita wants to do with a cover crops is “to grow (it) as a yard grass that will keep coming back and not be killed in the winter (so she) can cut it and add it to compost and/or mix with leaves to mulch the garden.”

Other than clovers (in particular, white clover) I don’t know of a cover crop that you could grow as or with a yard grass that would thrive 12 months of the year and keep coming back from year to year.

If a gardener has the inclination to experiment in at least a part of their yard, I would think it would be worth experimenting with perennial rye grass. (Keep in mind that I have not grown perennial ryegrass yet.  You may want to do your own research before making the decision to try it.) (It’s totally different than the winter rye I use as a cover crop.)

During times in the year that conditions are right for growth of perennial rye (cool weather), Rita could certainly cut it and add those clippings to her compost and mix with leaves to mulch her garden.

Perennial ryegrass is a cool season grass that is tough and traffic tolerant.  Because it’s easy and has high disease and insect resistance it’s said to be a leading choice for lawn and athletic covers in cooler areas.  It’s sometimes used in addition to a warm season lawn grass, since the rye will be green when the warm season grass is in winter dormancy.

(I’m trying out perennial ryegrass in part of my front yard this year just to see if I can have a green lawn more months of the year. Since it’s said to form a dense sod, I’ll stick to a conservative approach and try it in a small part of the yard until I can see first hand exactly what it will do.)

Want a Cover Crop That Will Give You Lots of Biomass?

If you have a spot in your yard that you can designate to growing biomass you could plant Sorghum-sudangrass. This grass is part of my long-term plan to get away from being dependent on a supplier for my straw.

It grows 5 to 12 feet tall.  (You don’t have to wait until it gets that tall to cut it.  Let it get 3 or 4 feet and then cut back to 6 inches again.) That can make a lot of organic material for mulch, compost, or whatever you want to use it for.  It’s planted in early summer and will continue to grow through frost.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been wanting to grow cover crops and haven’t been able to decide which one to grow, I hope this has been of help. The most important thing is to take action and grow one (or more).  That’s how you’ll reap the benefits.

Related Posts:

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

Cover Crops – Benefits – Some Easy Ones

Organic Gardening and the Value of Cover Crops

Cover Crops – Buckwheat is One of the Easiest

Winter Rye as a Cover Crop – 2 Strategies

Cover Crops – 2 Reasons Why and 2 Suggestions

Cover Crops – Garden Information – Staying Out of Overwhelm

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

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

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  • Theresa,
    I really like the idea of using sorghum-sudangrass as mulch. By being self reliant I feel so much more in control.
    Thanks so much for such great suggestions!
    I’m certainly going to give it a try.

  • So glad you’re going to give this a try, Aparna. I like being as independent as possible too. It really does make you feel more in control.
    Let me know how you do.

  • Hi Theresa,
    Such helpful information. I love the garden photo with you and your winter ryegrass. When did you plant it? I would think in the fall. What month? Did you wait for an empty garden space? Or did you plant it along with something else? I love that you will be collecting the seed for your next crop. I do that with everything I possibly can.

  • For most gardeners, just keeping your soil covered in winter, for soil conservation, I sow annual rye & or alfalfa.
    Another link here suggests hairy vetch becomes a weed, and that is a fact. All clovers I’ve ever seen used become a nuisance year after year, so you should keep that in mind. Skyfire seeds sells small qty alfalfa seeds for cover crops.

  • Hi Toni,
    Glad you found this helpful. I used that photo that you like in the book too. That is NOT ryegrass, but rather winter rye. There is a big difference. The ryegrass is a perennial which you do NOT want in a garden. Winter rye (or cereal rye) is what I use for a cover crop. I usually plant in November but you can start it in September or October if you have the space. It grows abundantly in the following spring, seeds by about May, and then dies off. That’s what you want for a garden. (Except of course you don’t want it to drop the seed in the garden!)

    When I plant the winter rye I designate that spot specifically for the rye after earlier crops are finished in that spot. So I do not interplant with other things, although you could interplant with a legume cover crops like field peas.

    I am trying to save seed from as many things as I can. It’s never as much as I’d like, but the best I can do right now. Thanks for letting me know you found the information helpful, Toni.

    Hi Randy,
    I assume when you said “another link here — ” that you meant one of my posts because I have stated that hairy vetch can easily become a weed.

    I’ve used clovers for many years (even before I realized they were considered a cover crop) and have never had them become a nuisance.

    I’ve used them in the garden, even interplanted with other crops and have never had problems. I’ve used them outside the garden where I wanted them to return and expand and allowed them to set seed, but they did not do so as abundantly as I had hoped. It would be interesting (at least to me) to know what the conditions are that causes them to become a nuisance.

    Nice to have you reading Randy. Thanks for your input.

  • ooh, Thank you Theresa for catching my slip up and bringing it to my attention. I very well could have ordered the wrong stuff and made a mess of my garden 🙂 I already took someone elses advice a few years ago and spread hairy vetch. Now I have it everywhere 🙂 So now that I am clear, I will put my order in for some WINTER RYE.

    Happy Weekend

  • Good Toni! Winter rye is what you want.
    I know what you mean about hairy vetch. As you’ve heard me say on this site many times, I planted hairy vetch about 30 years ago at our PREVIOUS location and I STILL have it at this current location!!!
    There are a lot of well-known gardeners that say to use hairy vetch. I’m thinking of one in particular who promoted hairy vetch and a few years after this gardener had some experience with it – he/she now says “you might try thus and such because hairy vetch may be a bit too invasive.” Makes me smile every time I read it.

    If you plan your strategy with winter rye, you will do very well with it Toni. Good luck!

  • Hi, I got your email after I went through the recently deleted stuff. There you were. And I do come in here sometimes. I originally got the winter rye because I thought it to be a perennial and could use it for both a cover crop and a yard crop but didn’t realize that winter rye and perrennial rye are different.

    This perennial rye would be good for the yard? Or would you suggest another? It just needs to keep coming back so I can cut it and add to the compost or as a mulch during the season.

    Presently I do not see any lawn or yard out there as we are still covered in snow. But it is slowly abatting.

  • Rita, I answered your question about perennial rye in the post above.
    It’s the paragraph under the bold heading “A Cover Crop to Use as a Yard Grass?”

  • I went looking up perrenial ryegrass at a couple state universaity websites I found and it was saying that this along with white clover would be good planted together. I am thinking of trying that mix. I was planning on planting more clover for the dang voracious eating of my garden wabbits. Maybe I will entice them away from the garden. I hope, ihope ihope!

  • I addressed your comment about rabbits in my email to you as follows:
    Rabbits really love clover so theoretically they would have food outside the garden. BUT, it can work either way.

  • Planting through your cover crops….How much of a area around the planting site do you stir up? You use a shovel? Do you add any other fertilizer or nitrogen source?

    Since I cut the rye last fall I had about 4″ of cover crop to dig through this spring. So I dug a 2 sq ft area for a couple cabbage, adding a little blood meal and composted cow manure. Once I smooth that out I take a trowel and open a spot for the transplants and pour diluted fish emulsion into the hole.

    When all was done I put cut grass and leaves around the plants. I am transplanting some kale today and some rutabaga seeds.

  • I use a hand tool rather than a shovel and dig a relatively small planting area — maybe a circle with a circumference of 8 inches. I do not add anything additional such as compost or nitrogen.
    But shovels are fine; as is the larger 2 foot area for transplanting, diluted fish emulsion, and/or the compost.
    I personally would not use any of the blood or bone meals in my garden for various reasons.

    Rita, you may have told me before but I’m not sure: Did you cut the rye last fall because you didn’t know to cut it in the spring or was there another reason?

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