Cover Crops for November: Winter Rye and Austrian Winter Peas

Cover Crops for November: Winter Rye (with Austrian Winter Peas early in November)

Winter rye headed up. Mow or turn it under very soon! Don’t let it shed seed.
Photo Pam Dawling

The first half of November is the last chance to sow winter cover crops in central Virginia

Our average first frost is October 14-20. If yours is later, see my post Cover Crops for October. It is still worthwhile to sow a few cover crops up to three weeks past your average first frost, and I’ll tell you about those, with ideas on what to do if your climate is past that point.

If the area is ready for cover crops up to 10 days past the frost date, sow winter wheat or winter rye and hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas.

See Planning Winter Cover Crops, a post that includes my Short Simple Guide to Winter Cover Crops and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers.

Last Chance Cover Crops in November: Rye

Rye grows impressive roots that improve the soil. Kauffman Seeds

Winter rye can still be sown in the mid-Atlantic in the first half of November. Winter rye is the cereal grain rye, not ryegrass. Ryegrass comes in annual and perennial forms, but neither is a good winter cover crop here. They don’t produce as much biomass as cereal rye, and can become weeds in our climate.

Winter rye is hardier than any other cover crop and can take later planting dates. Some people do sow winter wheat in early November rather than winter rye, so if you don’t have rye seed, use wheat. It can be tricky to have the cover crop seed you want, without risking buying more than you need. Sometimes it pays to use what you already have, as it may not give good germination if saved over to next fall.

Winter rye has an allelopathic effect (inhibition of germination) on small seeds, that lasts three weeks or more after rye is turned under. This means you will need to be fairly confident that the weather will allow you to till the rye in with three weeks to go before sowing carrots, spinach or other spring crops with small seeds. Transplants are not affected in the same way. If necessary, reconfigure your crop rotation plan over the winter. Plan for the next food crops after winter rye to be ones planted after late April, such as late corn plantings, winter squash, transplanted watermelon, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, June-planted potatoes, fall brassicas, and second plantings of summer squash, cucumbers, beans.

A field of winter rye with a strip of crimson clover in early May.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Other key features of winter rye cover crop

  • Rye grows 5′-7′ (1.5-2.1 m) tall.
  • Mow-kills at flowering, but not earlier.
  • Suppresses weeds (especially lambsquarters, redroot pigweed, ragweed).
  • Adds lots of organic matter if grown to full size.
  • Improves the soil’s ability to absorb and store water.
  • The roots hold the soil together and greatly reduce erosion.
  • Can be used to scavenge nutrients left over from a previous legume crop or to hold onto nutrients applied for a crop that failed.
  • Sow from 14 days before to 28 days after first fall frost.
  • Don’t sow before September in zone 7 – it may set seed.
  • Rye makes little growth in mid-winter, but very good growth once spring arrives.
  • Rye can be sown in the spring, although when incorporated, oats break down quicker.
  • Can be undersown in sweet corn or in fall brassicas in early September, and left as a winter cover crop.
Cover crop of rye and winter peas with flowering crimson clover. Photo Bridget Aleshire.

Include Austrian Winter Peas if possible in the first week of November

See my September post for more about the benefits of including legumes with winter cover crops grasses. Also how to inoculate legume seeds with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Austrian winter peas can be sown later than other legumes. See my October post for more about those. See Working with the time you have left for options if you are in another climate zone.

A key to success with legumes is to sow early enough in fall to establish before winter halts growth, and to plan not to need that plot next year until flowering time for that legume. Austrian winter peas bloom here at the end of April (about a week later than crimson clover, and a week earlier than hairy vetch). (If you have a legume that doesn’t reach flowering, you get less nitrogen for your money, and will need to add some compost or other source for the following food crop.) Suitable crops for following Austrian winter peas are ones planted after May 1: winter squash, melons, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, middle sowings of sweet corn, June-planted potatoes. This is pretty much the same list as crops that can be planted after winter rye.

Austrian winter peas
Photo https://www.uaex.edu

October 15 (our average frost date) is our clover/peas watershed (legume-shed?). Before that date we use crimson clover; after it (until 11/8, 3 weeks after our average frost date) we sow Austrian Winter Peas, along with winter rye or winter wheat.

Austrian winter peas winter-kill in zone 6, but are hardy in zone 7. Hardy to 0°F (-18°C). Sow Austrian winter peas at least 35 days before first hard freeze (25°F/-4°C) – in zone 7, that’s a 50% chance on 11/8. See Weatherspark.com for info on your location, or Dave’s Garden.

Last Chance cover crop

In the second week of November, we sow winter rye alone as our last chance cover crop. It is too late for any legumes.

Grain seed will store OK for the next year, but peas and beans really lose viability fast. If you still have Austrian winter pea seed from last year, I’d say throw it in this November rather than keep it for a third year, even if you are past the usual date. Germination rate goes down to 50% after a couple of years, and the plants won’t be sturdy.

Barbara Pleasant tells us two other ways cover crops can improve soil: Rhizodeposition and bio-drilling.

Rhizodeposition is a process whereby plants release sugars and other substances through their roots. The root tips host colonies of helpful microorganisms that go deeper as the roots grow deeper.  For rye, this depth can reach 6 feet (2 m)!

Bio-drilling is what happens when cover crop roots “drill” into compacted subsoil. Oilseed and daikon radishes are cover crops famous for this action. The roots push deep into tight subsoil. Bio-drilling also happens when deeply rooted cover crops penetrate the subsoil and then die. With winter rye this can happen when the headed-up rye is mowed close to the ground in spring, or the rye is tilled into the top soil, severing the roots below till level. The next crop can follow the root channels made by the cover crop. This gives access to nutrients (including dead roots and microbes) left behind by the cover crop.

How to protect the soil over the winter if it is too late for cover crops

Carrot harvest cart. Our Danvers carrots have plenty of sturdy leaves to protect the soil over winter. Photo Mari Korsbrekke

Sowing cover crops too late means you don’t get enough growth in the fall, and the soil is not adequately protected from erosion or from weed growth over the winter. Try really hard not to leave bare soil over the winter.

If it’s too late to sow cover crops, but you do have a healthy growth of weeds, mow them at the beginning of November and then leave everything alone until early spring. The weed roots will hold the soil together and the above-ground growth will protect the soil from heavy rain. Having live plants will provide food for the microbial life in the soil.

If you don’t have weeds, but only almost bare soil, and it’s too late to sow cover crops, find some kind of organic mulch to cover the soil. When we harvest our storage carrots in November, we return the cut tops to the soil surface. Another seasonal option is tree leaves (sometimes conveniently left in bags by the curb). Best to ask the “owners” before lifting them. Other ideas include straw or hay. Woodchips or sawdust will work for winter protection, but don’t till them in when spring arrives. Rake them off and compost them nearby. If turned under, they use up a lot of nitrogen decomposing, and your crops will be starved.

More resources on cover crops

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and many pages of charts about particular options.

Cover of Managing Cover Crops Profitably book from SARE

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

Cover crops for August: Oats and Barley

From the USDA Barley Plant Guide

Note: I edited this post in September when I found I was mistaken in believing barley was less cold-hardy than oats.

Focus Cover Crops for August: Oats, barley and other winter-killed cover crops

In August we are looking ahead, thinking about how our cover crops will be impacted by future cold weather. In July I wrote about hot weather grass cover crops, including Sorghum-Sudan hybrid (Sudex), and the millets, which are not frost-hardy.

German/Foxtail and Japanese millets are day-length sensitive. Growth is considerably less if they are sown after the summer solstice, so they are likely to be of limited use as cover crops once we reach August.

Browntop Millet could be useful in August in the mid-Atlantic. Proso/Broomcorn Millet I’m not so sure about. Pearl/ Cattail Millet is not day-length sensitive. To winter-kill and avoid seed formation, sow 60-85 days before your expected first frost.

See Working with the time you have left in the post Cover Crops in Summer. See No-Till summer cover crops in that same post (Soy, southern peas, foxtail millet). Also there, see Five Easy Summer Cover Crops that Die with the Frost (buckwheat, sorghum-sudan grass, soybeans, southern peas and sunn hemp.)

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Buckwheat can be sown up to 28 days before the first frost.  See my article about buckwheat. Soybeans can be sown up to 45 days before frost. A mix of sunn hemp, soybeans or southern peas and other frost-tender cover crops can be grown during August (60-80 days before frost) before planting garlic in mid-fall. This method will work more easily if you mow the cover crop around your frost date, so that it is easier to make furrows in the soil. Forage radish, lab-lab beans or bell beans sown now will die back and leave almost bare soil. This is a boon for the very earliest spring transplants or sowings.

Or, instead of sowing a cover crop now, you could sow a fast-growing vegetable crop. Kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, or land cress. Try Eat-All Greens, an idea form Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.

Twin Oaks Eat-All Greens on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Winter-killed, not frost-killed, cover crops

In August, we can sow winter cover crops to be winter-killed for easy soil cultivation before early spring vegetables. Oats and barley are in this category. Oats will be killed by three nights of 20°F (-7°C) or a single night of  6°F (-14°C). Sow oats 5-8 weeks before your average first frost to get good size plants before they get winter-killed. We sow in late August and early September in Zone 7a. See Cover Cropping Your Garden by Chris Blanchard in 2002:

“Inexpensive and easy to grow, oats are a standard early fall cover crop in the northern and middle sections of North America.  A quick-growing, non-spreading grass, oats will reliably die in Hardiness Zone 6 and colder, and often in zone 7.”

It used to be nine years out of ten, here in Louisa County, VA, but our climate is shifting to be too warm in winter to reliably kill oats. This past winter (2022/2023) oats did not die. They were cold-damaged, and set back, but definitely not dead.

We can no longer rely on our winter cover crop oats getting winter-killed. March photo by Pam Dawling

Fall-sown Barley (Hordeum vulgare), grows even faster than oats, although not as fast as winter rye, and it won’t die as early in the winter as oats. Barley dies at 17°F (-8°C). It usually will die in Zone 7 and colder regions. The dead barley residue protects the soil through the winter, and dries into what Barbara Pleasant calls “a plant-through mulch” in spring in cold zones.

See Planning Winter Cover Crops. If the area has been fully harvested of food crops by 60-80 days before frost, sow a frost-killed cover crop or even a fast-growing food crop.  In central Virginia, it’s a mistake to sow rye as early as August, as it can set seed.

Winter-hardy cover crops to sow in August

Not all winter cover crops can be sown as early as August in the mid-Atlantic. Don’t sow winter rye, or it may head up before winter and drop seeds. Only sow oats or barley if you are sure you can get them turned under or killed by cold winter weather before they seed. They will not mow-kill. Be careful buying feed-grade seeds (rather than seed-grade), as they can contain weed seeds including GMO canola.

Clovers can be sown in August (provided you can supply enough overhead irrigation). September is a better time to sow clovers here, if you are sowing them in bare ground. They will make some growth in our climate before winter, and then a lot more once spring arrives.

Secondary Cover Crops in August: Undersowing for more cover crops

  • Choose vigorous food crops, but cover crops that are only moderately vigorous.
  • Timing is critical: Sow the cover crop late enough to minimize competition with the food crop, but early enough so it gets enough light to grow enough to endure foot traffic when the food crop is harvested. Often the best time is at the last cultivation.
  • The leaf canopy of the food crop should not yet be closed. With vining food crops, sow the cover crop before the vines run.
  • Ensure a good seedbed and a high seeding rate.
  • Irrigate sufficiently. The food crop will have good roots by then, but the cover crop seed will be just below the surface and will need some help to germinate.

 Green fallow (Full year cover crops)

Fall broccoli undersown with a mixed clover winter cover crop.
Photo Nina Gentle.
  • Our main use of clovers is to undersow fall brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage, with a mix of Crimson clover, white clover and medium red clover in August, to form a green fallow crop (all-year cover crop) for the following year, replenishing the soil and reducing annual weeds.
  • 2 weeks after transplanting the brassicas (August), we hoe and till between the rows, or wheelhoe.
  • We repeat at 4 weeks after transplanting, and broadcast a mix of clovers (late August-early September): 1 oz (30 g) Crimson clover, 1 oz (30 g) Ladino white clover and 2 oz (60 g) Medium red clover per 100 sq ft (9 m2)
  • In March, we bush hog the old brassica stumps and let the clovers flourish, mowing once a month to prevent the crimson clover and the annual weeds from seeding.

See my Mother Earth News post: Late summer and fall intercropping of cover crops in vegetable crops, aka undersowing.

If you have difficulty getting even coverage when broadcasting clovers or other cover crop seeds, try seeding half the crop walking in one direction, and then seed perpendicularly across your original path

In mid-August, we undersow our last sweet corn planting with oats and soybeans, as the winter cover crop, which winter-kills, leaving a plot that is easily worked up next spring. Our 6th sweet corn is sown 7/16. 4 weeks after seeding, we cultivate and sow oats and soy. In mid-March we follow with our spring potatoes. Both oats and soybeans have some tolerance for shade and for foot traffic (harvesting corn!).

Late season sweet corn undersown with oats and soy
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Sweet corn can be undersown with clover rather than soy or oats in some climates. We tried clover but found it harder to germinate in hot weather, and harder to keep the tiny seed damp. Buckwheat can be undersown in corn as a short term summer cover, but according to Sue Ellen Johnson, (co-editor of Crop Rotation On Organic Farms: a planning manual, it grows rather straggly in the shade of the corn. Soy has the advantages of tolerating shade as well as foot traffic.

We tried an idea from NY State, or undersowing winter squash with buckwheat and tilling it under just before the vines run (that was June), but here in the south, the vines ran too fast. We ended up having to wade in among the vines to pull up the buckwheat by hand!

You can drill cover crop seeds using a push seeder. See VABF Using Manually-Operated Seeders for Precision Cover Crop Plantings on the Small Farm. Don’t worry if the seed ends up deeper than ideal. It will still germinate. On a small scale, you can sow by hand, either broadcasting and raking in, or in close rows using a hoe, as if sowing

Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book for $19 or download it as a free PDF from SARE.