How to Plant Cover Crops to Enrich Soil This Winter

Recharge Your Soil This Winter

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Late summer is the perfect time to sow cover crops for winter. In this video, we will show you how it’s done.

Cover crops, or green manures, are a great way to protect your garden from weeds and soil erosion over the winter period.

As well as protecting your soil, cover crops can be dug into the earth before spring, improving the soil ecosystem and feeding your plants with essential nutrients.

See which cover crops are right for your garden and demonstrate how to get the best from these soil superchargers, Recharge your soil this winter!

Cover Crops To Recharge Your Soil This Winter!

The end of summer is the ideal time to sow a cover crop.

Cover crops will:

  • Protect your soil from harsh winter weather
  • Add valuable organic matter when dug into the ground, improving the soil for next year’s plants
  • Help support all the beneficial creatures that live in the soil
  • Suppress weeds, meaning cleaner beds for sowing or planting in spring.

Cover Crops for Heavy Soil

  • Cereal rye has deep, fibrous roots that help to improve the structure of heavy soils by breaking up.
  • Mustard is quick-growing and produces lots of foliage that can be dug into the soil before winter to help improve its structure.
  • Prolific salads such as mache or corn salad may also be grown this way.

Cover Crops to Feed the Soil

Legumes such as winter field beans and peas, clover and vetch directly add nutrients to the soil by fixing nitrogen at their roots. Legumes are a great choice for sowing before nitrogen-hungry plants such as cabbages.
 

Cover Crops for Weed Suppression

Phacelia does a great job of suppressing weeds and improving soil structure. The flowers are attractive to bees and hoverflies, so consider allowing a small patch to flower.

Buckwheat will enrich your soil and provide nectar for beneficial insects in spring as well as suppressing weeds.

Check the planting times in our Garden Planner to discover the ideal sowing times for cover crops in your garden’s location.

How Sow a Cover Crop

Roughly dig the ground over, removing all weeds, particularly perennial ones, then gently firm down the soil with the back of a rake. Broadcast your seeds evenly across the soil surface. Rake them into the soil, tamp down with the back of your rake, then water.

You can also sow winter field beans in rows if you prefer. Prepare trenches about two inches deep, spaced eight inches apart. Plant the seeds four inches apart in the trenches, then cover them over with soil

Digging in a Cover Crop 

It’s worth leaving a few cover crop plants to flower to feed early beneficial insects, but dig most of your crop into the soil before it begins to flower. At this stage the stems are still soft and will be easier to cut up and dig in, and quicker to rot down.

You can dig the stems and foliage into the soil, or simply cut them down and leave on the surface as a mulch. Lay cardboard over the top if you’re worried about weeds popping up. Dig cover crops in at least a month before sowing or planting.

After you watch this short video, see our full list of cover crops for the U.S. and cover crops for Canada.

Reader Comments

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cover crops

Last fall was the first time I planted a cover crop. I used a mix of buckwheat, vetch, crimson clover, rye, and pea. It was all supposed to die back over winter. It did not. Our winters in northwest Indiana hang on and on leaving the ground still too frozen or too wet to work in March. And then comes early spring rain, it is usually too wet to turn the soil. By the time I was able to turn it under (and let me tell you that was lot of turning by hand) and let it decay for a month it was too warm to plant cool season veggies. And getting too dry and hot to really plant anything. We don't have much spring weather here. What a mess. I'll never do that again.

cover crop problems

Hi Sharon,

Sorry you had a negative experience with cover crops. Buckwheat is a summer cover crop so that should have died. I used to garden for a magazine and now I do for a nonprofit garden. We no longer use rye in our raised beds or anywhere we do hand work. Here are some easy combinations for winter cover crops though:

1. When we want an easy to remove cover crop (cc) we use Austrian Winter Pea (AWP) alone. It's super easy to remove and makes a good mulch

2. Oats or barley mixed with any or all of the following (hair vetch, AWP, crimson clover) works great. Oats and barley are easy to remove. None of these die during the winter but that's okay.

3. We have also planted fennugreek in late summer and it does die over the winter. Same for tillage radish (or diakon) which also dies during the winter.

I hope that helps. We do what's called 'chop and drop' with most of our cover crops - cutting or pulling them out in spring and l laying them right on the beds where we'll open up holes into the 'mulch' and plant transplants.

We can’t add much more than

We can’t add much more than Susan did. Chopping off the top growth and composting it makes it much easier to turn the soil over as only the roots and only a very small amount of stem and foliage remains. Alternatively, you could dig it all out and compost it, though depending on the size of garden that could be very time-consuming. As with most things in gardening though, it’s worth experimenting with what works for you because every garden is unique and what works in one area may not prove suitable in another.

No till garden

I'd think for no till, I should rake off the cover plants and put them in my composter, i.e. not sow them and disturbed the soil.

No-till gardening is a good

No-till gardening is a good idea. Just make sure to leave a month of so before planting to give the roots time to start decomposing.

Phacelia

You list phacelia as a cover crop to suppress weeds. You failed to mention that touching it causes painful burning, even a rash. Many varieties I have seen, though beautiful flowers, have real "mean" leaves.

We hadn’t heard about

We hadn’t heard about phacelia causing rashes. Apparently, some people are indeed allergic to the hairs on phacelia. 

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