Fall Cover Crops

Fall Cover Crops

Planting a fall cover crop in the late summer will help your garden be more productive next planting season. It’s an ideal way to improve and protect the garden soil during the winter months, plus you can harvest some of the greens and enjoy them late in the gardening season. After your garden has finished producing in late summer, get it ready and plant some of these beneficial fall cover crops.

What is a Cover Crop?

First off, what is a cover crop? A cover crop is simply something that is grown to cover the soil and is usually not harvested. Cover crops help with soil erosion protection, reduce unwanted weeds, pests, attract beneficial wildlife, and act as a kind of living mulch. Cover crops improve soil fertility, so they are often called “green manure”. Before these cover crops grow too tall, they are plowed over in the new spring planting season, instantly becoming organic fertilizer for the soil.

Cover crops help bring back nitrogen into the soil (low nitrogen is often a problem in crop production). Among all the types of cover crop plants, legumes excel in this regard. Legume plants form symbiotic relationships with certain bacteria in their root nodules. These bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen (that cannot be used by plants) into ammonium (that can be used by plants). Thus, cover crops are of great benefit to any sort of planted land.

How to Carry Out Planting Fall Cover Crops?

Now that we understand what a cover crop is, how do we go about planting those fall cover crops? You should find the following tips helpful.

Garden Clean Up

When summer crops cease production, remove the plants from the garden and toss them on the compost heap (if the plants are disease and pest free). Add a fresh layer of compost; turn it under the soil, then rake the surface smooth. The garden is now ready to plant fall cover crops.

raked soil
Remember to rake the soil before sowing your cover crop.

What to Plant

Late summer is not too late to plant cool-season vegetables, like radishes, lettuce, carrots, and peas. Count back from the first predicted frost date in your growing zone, and that should let you know how many days you have to plant, grow, and harvest fresh vegetables. A rough guide is to plant them as early as mid-August and no later than 10th October.

fall cover crop white clover
White clover, grows well as a late summer cover crop.

While we did say that cover crops are not usually harvested, but why not grow crops that can be harvested? There is nothing wrong with that. These fast-growing vegetables will act as early fall cover crops until they are harvested, but remember you will also need longer-growing plants to protect the garden throughout the winter.

oats as a fall cover crop
Oats as a fall cover crop

Select plants that will remain in the garden during the winter like:

  • Turnips
  • Collards
  • Kale
  • Legumes
  • Clover
  • Oats
  • Winter Rye
  • Winter Wheat

While legumes are good for recycling nitrogen back into the soil, grains like oats are good for controlling weeds and bulk-adding to the organic content of the soil. It is best to plant both legume and non-legume cover crops together.

Legumes like fava beans are an excellent choice, as they can tolerate low temperatures associated with autumn. Meanwhile, rye and barley are hardy for most soil types and also tolerate pretty low temperatures. Turnips are great at suppressing weeds and provide food for grazing cattle during winter.

harvested white turnips
Harvested white turnips in a field.

How to Plant

Fall cover crops do not require the soil to be tilled. Just sprinkle the seeds on top of the cleared and amended garden soil. Lightly rake to cover the seeds with soil, and water well (or plant them before rain), and then scatter a light layer of straw on top which acts as a protective mulch.

sowing seeds by hand
Sow your cover crop seeds by hand over the soil surface.

If you are sowing the fall cover crops over an area that is currently grown with an existing crop, remove mulch from around those existing plants while raking the area smooth. Your fall cover crops should not interfere with the existing crop growth while they grow.

Why Plant Fall Cover Crops?

As described above, cover crops are of big benefit to any garden or piece of land that is planted over. To recap, here is why it’s a good idea to plant fall cover crops.

  • A fall cover crop prevents soil erosion and compaction that can be caused by winter rain, wind, and snowfall.
  • Fall/winter crops prevent weed seeds from germinating by shading the soil.
  • Growing anything in the legume family will add nitrogen to the soil.
  • The fall cover crops can then be harvested, and plowed over in early spring to add nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure.

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