The only disadvantage for a gardener that I can see of using winter rye for a cover crop is if they don’t know anything about it and therefore don’t plan to work with the characteristics of winter rye. If you know how it grows and how to use it — it’s one of the best cover crops to plant.
It likes cool weather — so the fall is the obvious time to plant.
Characteristics of Winter Rye
- 1. Will germinate even at temperatures as low as 34 degrees. That means you can plant late in the season and still get decent growth established to cover the ground before winter really sets in.
September or October are great times to plant. Here in Virginia, we could plant into November and sometimes December — although that might be pushing it a bit.
- 2. Puts down deep, fibrous roots and even penetrates hardpan. With roots going down 18 inches and more it makes channels into the soil. The roots of the vegetables planted next will follow these channels — making it easier for them to establish a good root system of their own. (Your best plants will be the ones with the best root systems.)
Rye’s deep roots help water filter into the soil and hold it for use. (This is a big bonus for sandy soil that tends to drain too quickly.)
- 3. Cover crops in general are the best way to add biomass to the soil. (Especially if you don’t have access to good animal manure.) .
Rye makes a lot of biomass which is important when you consider organic materials for mulch and/or to incorporate in the soil are always in demand.
- 4. Will suppress weed growth. Most transplanted vegetables like tomatoes are less susceptible to rye’s *allelopathic effects. (*Can inhibit growth of other plants or germination of seed.) You’d want to wait 3 or 4 weeks after “killing” the rye to plant small-seeded crops like carrots, but you should be fine with transplants. (Mine did fine.)
- 5. Scavenges excess Nitrogen and holds it until its biomass decays the following late spring/summer.
A Strategy using Winter Rye to Help Your Warm Weather Crops
- Decide where you’ll transplant seedlings like tomatoes, cucumber, eggplants, and squash next year.
- Plant those beds generously with winter rye now. Although the seed will germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees — its best to get it planted as soon as you can so it can put on good growth before winter. The plants will go dormant and stop growing at temperatures below 38 degrees, so get it in as soon as you can this month. It will resume quick growth next spring.
- Next May just about when the pollen is on the rye, cut it to the ground with a hand sickle. (This is very easy to do by the way — otherwise I wouldn’t physically be able to do it.)
The stubble itself will mulch the bed, but I like to leave the biomass right on top of the rye stubble for deeper mulch. Also when the vegetation breaks down — all the nitrogen (or any other nutrients it has gathered from the soil) will be released for use by the plants that come next.
- Leave the stubble and roots to decay in the ground. (It’ll be totally gone by late summer. Mine was anyway.)
- A week before you want to transplant your warm weather seedlings (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash), use a hand mattox to dig a hole into the rye stubble. (In my sandy soil — with one blow of the mattox I can just pull up a chunk of stubble about 6 to 12 inches in circumference.) I loosen the soil in the hole and then plant the seedling.
- Just to compensate (in case the roots are tying up some of the nitrogen in the soil as they decay) add a cup of so of compost on top of soil around the seedling and top that off with some mulch like straw or even the biomass from the rye. Later in the summer the roots will have decayed and that nitrogen released will then be available to your vegetable crop.
- By mid to late summer your mulch (the biomass from the rye) may be just about gone. Add more mulch after a nice rain.
Another Strategy using Winter Rye to help Prepare a New Bed
I’m in the process of preparing a new bed for vegetables outside the fenced garden area. The weeds and wire grass are being removed but I’ll not have time to deeply prepare the bed this season. I still want to plant butternut squash there next year.
Winter rye is an excellent choice on infertile, sandy, acidic, or poorly prepared land. Three of the four adjectives describe my new spot: infertile, sandy, and poorly prepared..
- I’ll plant the area with winter rye this month.
- Field peas are not always winter hardy — but I may take a chance and plant them with the rye. If they make it through the winter, they ‘ll grow quickly in the spring. When I cut the biomass (both rye and field peas) the roots of the field peas will have put nitrogen into the soil and will supply it to my transplants (squash) until the roots of the rye decay. (After decaying those roots will supply nitrogen for late summer.)
(A lot of folks plant Hairy Vetch with rye because it gets through the winter better. Vetch can get out of hand if not controlled in a timely manner — as I’ve mentioned in previous posts — and I’d rather not plant it. But it’s tempting.)
The field peas need to go a bit deeper into the soil so I’ll plant them first and then broadcast the rye seed. (I allowed enough rye to seed last year that I would not have to buy seed this year. Good feeling.)
- As the roots decay in late summer I may plant buckwheat along with the squash to cover the ground.
- When the squash are finished next fall I’ll prepare the soil deeply and cover with straw if there is no time for another cover crop. I’ll put tomatoes in the following year and underplant with a cover crop like clover.
These are excellent strategies for using Winter Rye to benefit your beds during the winter and benefit your warm weather crops the following season.
To recap the benefits:
- It covers and holds the soil for winter.
- The stubble provides a mulch through the Spring and most of the Summer.
- The top growth and the roots hold the moisture of snow and rain for use in the future.
- Penetrates deeply even into hardpan. (And thus helps prepare soil for future plantings.)
- Recycles nutrients.
- Provides a lot of biomass which can double as mulch.
If you want to plant early spring crops, you’re better off using a different cover crop that would winter kill and decay by spring, allowing you to plant earlier in the spring.
But for warm weather crops that you’ll plant in late April, May or June next year — you can’t beat Winter Rye for a cover crop this fall.
Organic gardening is easy, efficient, effective — and it’s a lot healthier.
All content including photos are copyright by TendingMyGarden.com. All Rights Reserved