Cover Crops For The Backyard Garden

 

What Is A Cover Crop?

At the end of the summer harvest, when all the veggie plants are dead and gone, it’s time to till the soil and work plant debris back into the dirt so that it decomposes over the winter.  But, that result in bare soil – with nothing growing except for the occasional unwanted weeds that pop up sporadically.

That means NO FOOD for the bacteria, worms, and other microorganisms in the garden plot to eat – for many months.  These little buggers are needed to keep the garden soil healthy and fertile.  If we don’t feed them, they die – or move on to greener pastures.

So, let’s make our garden a greener pasture – and add a fall cover crop that not only feeds these tiny critters but also adds nutrients to the soil in time for spring planting next year.

There are two basic classes of cover crops – or “green manure” crops.  Each one performs a necessary function for the soil in a backyard garden.

Grains And Grasses

Annual Ryegrass - Cover Crop

Cereal grains and grasses catch and hold the nitrogen, minerals, and other macronutrients and micronutrients that are normally leached out of the soil during the winter rain and snow.  So, the amount of fertilizer needed each spring to get the garden underway is significantly minimized.  That equates to a lower out of pocket expense to get to growin’ again in the spring. 

They also prevent erosion and keep the soil from compacting so tightly – making it easier to till in the spring.  Their roots penetrate deep into the soil and improve the penetration of both air and water.  Good drainage is essential to a successful summer garden.

These grains and grasses will smother the weeds and keep those weeds from actively proliferating in the garden.  Additionally, they can not only force some garden pests to move on to other areas – they can also break up disease cycles – minimizing – and, sometimes, eliminating completely – bacterial and fungal plant diseases.

The best part is – when you till the cover crops back into the soil, the nitrogen and all the nutrients – including phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and zinc – are ready to feed your spring veggie plants.  That’s why many folks call cover crops by another name – “green manure.”

NOTE:  It is best to till cover crops back into the garden dirt at least a month before spring planting to give them time to decompose sufficiently and add their nutrients back into the ground.  Before tilling, run your mower or garden tractor over the cover crops to chop them up.  This will definitely make your life much easier when working the plant debris into the soil.

Triticale, barley, buckwheat, oats, winter wheat, winter cereal rye, and annual ryegrass are popular cover crops.  My choice is annual ryegrass because it grows very fast – not giving the weeds a chance to take hold – and it is, by far, the least expensive of the all the choices.

Pennington Annual Ryegrass 25 lbScotts Broadcast Spreader

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year I purchased a 25 pound bag of Pennington Annual Ryegrass.  Using a Scotts Broadcast Spreader, I distributed it at a rate of a half a pound for every 200 square feet of garden space – and, in my ~ 2,000 square foot garden, I’ll use about 5 pounds.  So, a 25 pound bag should last me about 5 years.

 

Legumes

Field Peas - Legume Cover Crop

Seeding the garden with legume cover crops has the same advantages as using grains and grasses – with one added plus!  The legumes will add additional nitrogen back into the soil – since they are “nitrogen fixers.”Austrian Field Peas

A host of nitrogen fixing legume cover crops include: alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, vetch, etc.  I have found what works well for me is a 25 pound bag of Austrian Field Peas.

I mix the peas in with my annual ryegrass at the same rate – half a pound for every 200 square feet of garden space – so, again, 5 pounds.  That way, I don’t have to order any more ryegrass or field peas for 5 garden seasons.

 

Other Cover Crop Combinations

Many of my fellow gardeners like to use hairy vetch, along with either ryegrass or oats.

Others lean towards sowing a winter wheat along with their field peas.

It all depends on what grows best in your neck of the woods and how big your wallet is.  And, since annual ryegrass and Austrian field peas cost less and do the job, I will always opt for these low cost cover crop solutions.  Also, my neighbor, Jed, the retired farmer, recommended this combination to me since I grow a lot of corn.  He said the ryegrass and field peas do a better job of adding essential nutrients back into dirt – because corn can deplete the soil more than many other vegetables.

 

Don’t Let Cover Crops Go To Seed

Just before cover crops start to flower or seed, they should be cut and worked into the garden soil with a good electric or gas tiller.

If you allow them to spread seeds in the garden, they will grow just like weeds during the growing season – trying to crowd out your veggie plants while competing for water, nutrients, and space.  This is especially true of legumes like hairy vetch, clover, and field peas.  But, even the grains and grasses will give you a headache trying to keep them from overtaking your summer garden.

So, keep an eye on them – and nip them in the bud before they start tossing their seeds all over the place!

 

Do You Still Need A Soil Test In The Spring?

You betcha!  Get that soil test!

You still may need to fine tune the pH of your soil with a bit of lime or sulfur/potash – or, you may be a tad bit off with some of your macro or micro nutrients – and need a little fertilizer.  However, I guarantee that the amounts you use will be a drop in the bucket compared to what you used in the past to get your spring garden soil up to snuff – before you discovered the value of cover crops!

Now, tell me – have you used cover crops?  Ever thought about using them?  How much do you spend every year on soil amendments?  Let me know in the comments or by email!

 

Jim, the Lifelong Gardener

jim@perfect-vegetable-garden.com

 

18 thoughts on “Cover Crops For The Backyard Garden

  1. Emmanuel Buysse Reply

    Great post and good info for us!

    The summer is done, winter is coming, our plants are out and what do we notice after 3 weeks?

    Yes, weeds! 

    You can imagine I’m not so happy with it, so I’m really glad I’ve came across your post.

    I will probably put grass or so, to let it stay away.

    Thanks a lot for sharing it!

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Emmanuel,

      Just make sure you put the right kind of cover crop grass for your area.  The annual ryegrass is commonly used throughout most of the hardiness zones.

      Jim

  2. Chris Reply

    Very interesting article, especially for a newbie gardener like myself (who has inherited a big garden with the new house!). 

    I thought I had gathered enough knowledge to start growing successfully, but obviously not – this is the first time I’ve heard of creating a cover garden for the winter months. What happens if the bacteria etc does move on – will the soil be completely useless come summertime (worse case scenario?). 

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Chris,

      A good portion of the bacteria, worms, and other microorganisms may perish or leave due to lack of food – but, there will still be some diehard survivors.  It will just take longer for them to rejuvenate and procreate to establish the numbers needed to get your garden up to snuff again.

      That’s where the cover crops come in – to feed them – so they can multiply in larger numbers when the next growing season rolls around.

      Jim

  3. Matt's Mom Reply

    I need a cover crop for my back yard!  I recently purchased my home and the yard is a mess.  The back yard is mostly shade and the soil is mostly sand.  So right now it is just a weeded mess.  I don’t think grass is going to grow, so have been wanting to get some kind of ground cover.  Any suggestions as to what might work?  I live in Florida, so I am assuming that most anything will grow year round?

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Matt’s Mom,

      I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the cover crops – grains or grasses.  They will choke out the weeds and give you a consistently uniform backyard.  If you plan on adding a garden, then add a legume cover crop in that area, too.

      Annual ryegrass works great for the cooler season – even in Florida.  In the hotter spring and summer months, try barley, buckwheat, or sudangrass.

      Barley is very drought tolerant and adapts well to most soils.

      Buckwheat prefers light to medium textured soils with good drainage.

      Sudangrass typically has more than 85% germination rate which is excellent for cover crops.

      Just make sure you start cutting it before the cover crop goes to seed.

      Jim

  4. Dale Reply

    This sure helps a not so green thumb.  I absolutely would have never thought of cover crops if I hadn’t read it here.

    I know I will be implementing this into my garden next year.  Anything that is going to help me and my garden is welcome.  I do have a question and this seems to be the right place to ask it.

    Should a person be throwing tops away or tilling them into the soil.  When I say tops I mean like carrot, beets and even potato tops?  I look forward to hearing your answer.

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Dale,

      The thinking used to be that cover crops are only advantageous to commercial farms – but, more and more home gardeners are finding out how beneficial they are to backyard gardens.

      You can just till your vegetable throwaways back into the garden soil – but, I like to put my vegetable peelings into my compost piles.  The unwanted veggie parts will decompose much faster while composting than they will if you only add them directly to your garden dirt.

      Jim

  5. Barry Reply

    Hello Jim. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece about cover crops for the backyard.  Cover crops are great for the soil. They help keep the little organisms and also add great nutrients to the soil. I think that when I decide to grow my own garden, I will definitely use cover crops during the off season just as you suggested.

    They look beautiful too.

  6. Evald Reply

    Hey there,

    This is a very informative and interesting article. I have learned a lot of new things today!

    It was quite exciting to learn about two different classes of cover crops, how they behave, what they are best for, and their characteristics in general.

    I was quite surprised to discover that cereal grains and grasses prevent erosion and have the ability to keep soil from compacting tightly, cool stuff! What also stood out for me was the fact that legume cover crops has the same pros as using grains and grasses but with one added advantage – being ”nitrogen fixers.”  That’s interesting!

    Are there any disadvantages of using legume cover crops, and if yes- what would be the drawbacks about them?

    Thanks for the great article, keep up the great work and have a great day! 😉 

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Evald,

      Many home gardeners are just learning about the advantages of using cover crops.  I think that, as the word gets around to more of them about the many benefits, cover crops will skyrocket in demand.

      The only real disadvantage to using legume cover crops is their cost – sometimes up to 2 times the cost of grains and grasses.  That is why I use a combination of grass and legumes for my garden.  If money wasn’t a factor, I would probably use legume cover crops exclusively.

      Jim

  7. Paul Reply

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks for the informative article on cover crops for the backyard garden.

    I got great insights on green manure and surprised to see the benefits it can do to the soil, bacteria, worms, micro organism etc.,

    You not only addressed the problem but provided the solution and on top of that provided your recommendation Annual Ryegrass. Thanks for sharing from your own experience very helpful.

    Wishing you great success!

    Paul

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Paul,

      The best thing about annual ryegrass is that it can do the same job as any of the other grains and grasses – and, it the expense is minimal.

      Many folks are a bit taken aback by the term, “green manure”, when referring to cover crops – but, that is exactly what it is.

      And, as I said, we want to feed the good bacteria, worms, and microorganisms over during the off season so they are still alive and kicking when next year’s garden gets growing!

      Jim

  8. Wayne Biggs Reply

    I wonder how much difference a winter ground cover would make. Do you have any statistical data on improvement because of ground cover. I am from Texas and I am not familiar with the ground cover process in the fields of West Texas. Some technical data would be helpful for those like me, who need a reason to pursue winter ground cover.

    Just a thought. Overall this a well written article.

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Wayne,

      There is a ton of statistical data that proves the case for using cover crops – for both commercial and home gardening.  One study I found most illuminating is by the National Wildlife Federation.  Check it out.  I’m sure it will be more than enough to convince you of the benefits gained by using cover crops.

      Jim

  9. Mina Kim Reply

    This post has enlightened me.

    I’m not a garden person so, I don’t actually pay much attention to it. But it is good to know that there are “cover crops” that we can use to make our garden look beautiful in spite of winter days.

    I will recommend your site to a friend of mine who’s into gardening.

    • Jim Reply

      Hi Mina,

      One of these days you may decide to venture into the wonderful world of gardening – and, maybe, you’ll remember how important cover crops are to your garden.

      So, at least I have planted the seeds of knowledge that will help you in your future gardening endeavors.

      Jim

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