Cover Crops Soil Improvement and/or preparation

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

There are lots of reasons to grow Cover Crops. When you cut or incorporate your cover crops into the soil will be determined by the reason you’re growing it.

Here are some examples:

Example #1

  • Earlier this summer I thickly planted buckwheat in various beds that had finished producing vegetables.  I let the buckwheat grow and flower (for the bees).  Then I cut it.  Left the roots in the bed.  Covered the biomass with straw.

The biomass from the buckwheat (the green) and the straw (carbon) will act to create compost before I plant in the spring.  All I’ll have to do is pull back my straw and plant.  The soil will have plenty of organic matter.

Example #2

  • Some of my garden beds that have fall crops in them will need to be renewed quickly in the spring before I plant something else.  More than likely I’ll plant buckwheat because it grows so quickly.  But whatever I decide on I’ll incorporate into the soil when its only a few inches high. Then I’ll wait a week and plant.

If I allowed the cover crop to mature — not only would it take too long (remember – I’ll want to plant veggies in this bed) — but the mature plants would take longer to break down and it would take longer for the nutrients they supply to be made available to my veggie plants. The young growth will break down quickly and supply more nutrients quickly to the next crop.

Example #3

  • A few weeks ago in various available garden beds I planted oats and field peas.  The oats will winter kill.  The field peas will grow more in the spring and set nitrogen into the soil.  I’ll cut their biomass down with a hand sickle before the peas seed or about a week before I need to plant — whichever comes first.  The biomass will act as mulch for the bed. As it decays it will recycle nutrients back to soil and make them available to my crops.

The roots of the oats should be pretty much decayed and benefiting the soil. If I want to turn the soil — the roots of the oats are not hard to incorporate.  Depending on what I plant, I would prefer to leave them in the soil — It’s easier and saves time.

This is the lower corner of my garden. The buckwheat (about 4 inches tall) will be incorporated into the soil this week and straw placed on top.(Right hand side above sedums.) The oats and field peas (to the left) are planted in beds where onions grew this spring. The oats will grow taller and winter kill. The field peas will winter over and grow again in the spring setting nitrogen in the soil for my crops to use. The bushes are blueberries.

Example #4

  • As you know from past posts, I have planted cereal rye to winter over and grow a lot of biomass in spots where tomatoes will grow. In the very center of the circle I’ll incorporate the cereal rye in late fall or early winter so I’ll make sure not to have a problem with it when I’m busy in the spring. (Cereal rye has massive roots and can be hard to incorporate.) The rest will grow tall.

Long about May (depending on the weather) when the pollen is heavy on the rye, I’ll cut it by hand and lay it on the circle as mulch.  I don’t want to use any straw on my tomatoes until at least August and I’m hoping that the rye will be enough to keep my tomatoes mulched until then.  The dying/dead roots will also act as mulch, add nutrients to the soil and  hold moisture.  The biomass on top further holds moisture and as it decays adds more nutrients.

A Tip

If you have a garden bed that you are working on improving, but does not yet have rich soil — try growing buckwheat or oats.  Both will grow on poor soil.  Pull up nutrients.  Store them.  And recycle them in a usable form back to your next crop after you incorporate them into the soil.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has given you some ideas about how you can make cover crops work for you. When you become aware of all the wonderful ways they help you in your garden — it makes you wonder how you ever did without them.


Related Posts:

Winter Rye as a Cover Crop – 2 Strategies

Cover Crops – 2 Reasons Why and 2 Suggestions

Cover Crops – Benefits – Some Easy Ones

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


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


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  • Hello Theresa. My garden is small and intensively planted. I doubt that anything would germinate under the tomato jungle! But the peppers seem to be almost done, and I could plant something where the cucumbers were, and where many of my summer squashes were (only 3 left out of my original 8). Would Southern States Farm Supply carry these seeds, or would I need to order online?

    I’m also curious to know which of your vegetables have stopped producing? Do you yank them out roots and all, or cut them down to the ground?

    Thank you!

  • Heather, I would think Southern States would have some of this seed. I don’t buy seed from them — so I don’t really know what they have and what they don’t. You could call them. If you order online — Pinetree Garden Seeds has them — and their shipping is reasonable. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has them too.

    Sometimes I pull out the finished plants roots and all. If they’re disease free I just cut them up, lay on the bed or in the paths, and cover with straw. If they have any disease or possible bugs they go out of the garden and into a bag for trash. Sometimes I’ll leave the roots of snap beans since they set nitrogen in the soil.

    Regarding what has stopped producing —- It’s easier to tell you what is still producing.
    Squash is still in the garden — but is not being pollinated so not producing. It’s acting as trap for the squash bugs now. Will soon come out.
    Tomatoes look great and are going strong. They’ll be in the garden until hard freeze
    The pepper plants are the stars of the garden and setting more fruit everyday. They too will produce until hard freeze.
    Snap beans are beautiful and producing. I pick a little everyday.They’ll go until hard freeze.
    Limas have not yet produced. I was very late getting them in.
    Late potatoes in grow bag are finishing. I still have a good sized row of potatoes remaining. (I store in the ground)
    Spring onions are growing.
    Figs are finishing.
    I have some raspberries but the drought really hurt them.
    Mizuna is doing with more on the way.
    Lettuce is pickable, but not yet abundant.
    I have some beets. The crickets ate all my young seedlings. Also ate my radish seedlings.
    I’ll plant again probably.
    Eggplants — a few fruits left. They are still setting fruit but probably won’t have time to mature.
    And of course I have basil, parsley, arugula, rosemary, thyme, sage, lemon balm, oregano.

  • Theresa, how in the world do you manage a hand sickle? Isn’t that hard on your back? I don’t know if I could use a sickle myself, but maybe I could if it was only for short amounts of time. Or is there a secret way of doing it that spares one’s back?

  • Pat, I’ll bet you’re imaging the old sickle like the one I saw my Father use many, many times to cut tall grass. It’s in our shed reminding me of those times — but never used.
    I’m planning some time in the future to do a post on the tools I use — and this little Japanese sickle is one of them.
    I was sorta afraid of it at first because it’s so sharp — but wow it saves hours of work and is easy to use.
    Remember — I don’t have fields and fields of winter rye — just a few beds. I just hold a lot of the rye with my left arm and pull the sickle through the mass to cut it.
    Field peas I don’t even hold — just reach over and pull the sickle through the stems.
    I had been cutting the rye with hedge shears. That was taking forever. With this little sickle it only take a few minutes.
    Also — it is the fastest way to cut old daylily foliage. Cuts the time by at least 75%!

  • Theresa, is your sickle an “L” type as opposed to the crescent? I found a Japanese sickle knife that is more of an “L” type on Lee Valley website. Had hoped a local hardware store would have them, but no luck so far.

    We are drying out a bit now in Tennessee. Rain still in forecast, but only slight chance for the next several days. Guess where I will be spending most of my time!


  • Yes Patricia it is more of an L. The kind I have you won’t find in a hardware store.
    I’ll look for the site and send you a link via email sometime today so you can see.

    Glad to hear you’re drying out a bit. Have fun out there!

  • Hi Theresa, have been reading your site for awhile, great stuff.
    You use a lot of straw for mulch, why wait until August to use it on tomatoes?

  • Thanks for this question James. I reread the post and I sure was unclear about that. I apologize. I feel sure others had the same question and just did not ask.

    The tomatoes are mulched by the stubble of the rye and also by the cut biomass from the rye that I put on top of the stubble. The tomatoes don’t really need additional mulch until into August when the stubble and biomass has decayed and is disappearing.

    Sometimes I run out of straw and can’t get any until the farmer bales and then has time to bring it to me. Some years that can be August. Fortunately, I usually have some on hand, but not always.

    Again, thank you for the question James. Hope you will continue to enjoy TMG.


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