Organic No-Till Cover Crops

 

Rye and hairy vetch cover crop. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Organic no-till cover crops are grown to flowering (or very close), killed without tilling or chemicals, and left to become dead mulch for the next crop. The food crops are planted into the dying residue. We have used no-till cover crops for Roma paste tomatoes, which are transplanted in early May. We don’t need early-ripening for these, making them a good no-till food crop. This method enabled us to have 1 year in 10 as a no-till year.

Four ways to kill cover crops without herbicides or tilling

  1. Winter-killed cover crops for early spring food crops
  2. Mow-killed cover crops.
  3. Crimped and rolled cover crops use special tractor equipment. A crimping roller is more successful than a smooth roller. I have also seen photos of an energetic human-powered method involving a T-post lying on the ground across a bed, with two well-coordinated people, one at each end of the T-post, lifting the post with a loop of rope or twine, setting the post back down a few inches further forward and stepping on it.
  4. Mowed and tarped cover crops, kept covered until the roots of the cover crop are dead. With this method, the cover crop or weeds can be killed at any stage of growth. I’m still learning about this, so I won’t say more this time.
We can no longer rely on our winter cover crop oats getting winter-killed. March photo by Pam Dawling

Organic no-till benefits to the soil

  • Soil is kept covered, reducing erosion.
  • Soil compaction is reduced by having fewer tractor passes. Labor, fuel and machinery costs are also reduced.
  • Soil layers are not inverted, the soil micro-organism habitat is undisturbed, the root channels of the cover crops are undisturbed, and the number of earthworms and microbes increases.
  • Soil structure improves, organic matter increases and the cover crop biomass is conserved, rather than burning up as quickly as it would if incorporated.
  • Soil can absorb and retain more water, making it more resilient in drought. Yields are higher under drought conditions than on tilled soil.
  • Soil retains cooler temperatures into the summer, increasing root growth.
  • No new weed seeds are brought to the surface.
  • Some pathogens and pests may be suppressed.
  • Mulch grows in situ – no need to haul and spread.
  • Legumes in the cover crop mix can provide all the nitrogen the next crop needs. The cost of N from vetch seed is half the cost of N from fertilizers.
  • Legumes are a slow-release fertilizer: 15% of the nitrogen in the vetch is in the roots, in position in the soil for the new transplants. 50% becomes available to the food crop as the soil warms in spring and early summer; 50% remains for the following season.
  • Hairy vetch activates plant genes that increase disease tolerance and plant longevity, giving tomatoes an extra 2 to 3 weeks of production
  • Use of agricultural plastics is reduced.
  • If spring is wet, it may be possible to mow, when you couldn’t till.
  • Crops such as pumpkins are cleaner than those grown on bare soil.
Hairy vetch cover crop.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Suitable cover crops for no-till

  • When choosing winter annual cover crops, consider cold-tolerance, the length of the growing season, and efficacy in fixing nitrogen and producing biomass. Do you want a winter-killed cover crop (oats, sorghum-sudangrass) or a hardy one (winter wheat or winter rye)?
  • Using a mixture of grasses and legumes helps limit the loss of N from the cover crop through leaching or denitrification. Generally, use a grass/legume mix in a 2:1 ratio, although you can use higher amounts of legumes, up to 1:1. Hairy Vetch, Austrian Winter Peas, Crimson Clover are all suitable.
  • There are advantages to including more than one legume in the mix – in unusual weather, one may struggle, while the other does better. 

No-till cover crops for early spring vegetables

  • Frost-tender cover crops can be used before early spring no-till food crops. Some growers say it is best to mow or roll the cover crop at around the first frost date, to provide a more uniform mulch in the spring. Weeds may be a problem and the soil will be colder than bare soil — this may work for cabbage and broccoli.
  • For the very earliest spring crops, forage radish, lab-lab bean or bell beans will die back and leave almost bare soil. While they are growing, they suppress weeds.
  • BUT fast-maturing spring vegetables will not do well with no-till cover crops unless you add N fertilizer, as they need nitrogen more quickly than can be got from no-till cover crops early in the year when the soil is cold.
Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop
Photo by McCune Porter

No-till cover crops before suitable late spring vegetables

  • A 1994 USDA trial of various no-till cover crop mulches for tomatoes found that hairy vetch (without added nitrogen fertilizer, and without any weeding) out-yielded plastic-and-fertilizer plots by about 25%, and out-yielded fertilized bare soil by 100%.
  • Late-spring transplanted crops such as late tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, Halloween pumpkins, or successions of cucumbers and squash can do very well after a winter-hardy legume-grass mix no-till cover crop.
  • I have read that transplanting eggplant into crimson clover (sown in the fall before) will reduce flea beetle outbreaks, but I have yet to try it. Mowing after early bud stage will kill crimson clover.
  • At the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Georgia, they have trialed peanuts planted into crimson clover.
  • If you have machinery or hand tools for seeding into no-till cover crops, direct seeded crops are possible.
Rows of Roma paste tomatoes, some on bioplastic, some no-till. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Our example: Paste tomatoes in a mow-killed no-till cover crop mix

  1. We find a plot that will be available in early September: Our spring broccoli and cabbage finish in early July. We follow them with a round of buckwheat summer cover crop.
  2. Then, on September 7–14, we sow winter rye, Austrian winter peas and hairy vetch. 5 oz HV, 1.5 oz AWP, 2.5 oz Rye per 100 sq ft (5 g HV, 5 g AWP, 8 g rye/m2.)
  3. It is vital to grow a solid stand of cover crops for high biomass. The goal is to have the vetch be about 4″ (10 cm) tall before hard frosts of 22°F (-5.5°C) stop growth.
  4. We do not till in this cover crop in spring, but in early May, we mow it very close to the ground using our hay mower (5/1-5/5), just before our tomato transplanting date. We want the cover crop to stay in long aligned stems, not be chopped up small. For small patches, a scythe is better than a weed-whip, for the same reasons
  5. This kills the cover crops. If mowed too early, they will not die. The vetch should be flowering. Rye should be at the soft dough stage – bite a kernel.
  6. We let the mulch wilt for a day, making it easier to work with, before transplanting. We measure and set out stakes and ropes to mark the rows.
  7. We transplant the tomatoes into the dying mulch with as little disturbance of the cover crop as possible.
  8. The vetch and peas (if plentiful) supply all the nitrogen the tomatoes need. We do not add any compost or other fertilizer. The peas reduce the incidence of Septoria leaf spot in the following tomato crop.
  9. In our humid climate the dead no-till mulch keeps weeds away for 6 -10 weeks, by which time it has mostly biodegraded. In climates that are drier or cooler than ours, the mulch will last longer.
  10. In July we roll hay between the rows, to top up the mulch. We plant the tomato rows 5.5 feet (1.7 m) apart and the plants are staked and woven, so we can snugly fit big round bales of hay down the aisles.
  11. This crop doesn’t finish until the frost, and we have all the posts to remove before we can sow a cover crop, so the winter following the paste tomatoes, we usually grow rye with Austrian winter peas.
The Roma paste tomatoes later in the year.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
Roma tomatoes in an earlier year, with rolled hay mulch. Photo Twin Oaks
Plentiful harvest of Roma paste tomatoes. Photo Twin Oaks COmmunity

Cautions about no-till planting

  • Cold-hardy cover crops need time in spring to grow to optimal size before mowing – they are not suitable for early spring food crops
  • Untilled soil in spring is colder than tilled soil: growth of anything you plant in it will be slower, and harvests delayed. Not good for warmth-loving crops such as watermelons!
  • The rate of nitrogen release from the cover crop will be slower than from an incorporated cover crop
  • Transplanting into untilled soil is harder work than planting into loose tilled soil
  • The timing of sowing, rolling or mowing and planting is critical. The wrong weather can jinx your plans
  • If the cover crop stand is poor, weeds will germinate – have a Plan B. Usually this will involve tilling, adding compost and then finding another mulch
  • There may be some regrowth of the cover crop, if mowing was too high, irregular or poorly timed. If needed, mow between the crop rows a couple of weeks later
  • There may be more fungal diseases and slugs
  • In arid zones, it is necessary to wet the mulch weekly to release the nutrients. Drip irrigation won’t do that
  • Hand-seeding into untilled soil is tricky – winter snow and ice can leave soil quite compacted. Unsuitable for small seeded, closely-spaced vegetables. Pumpkins and squash can be direct seeded in crimped and rolled (or mowed) winter rye.
  • Initial hopes for no-till cover crops – that it would be possible to grow vegetables organically without ever tilling again – were unrealistically high

No-till tractor equipment

  • For mowing cover crops, we use our hay mower/conditioner rather than our (rotary) bush-hog, as it cuts close to the ground and lays the cover crop down without chopping it into small pieces. This helps it last longer, and be easier to transplant into. Flail-mowers are recommended over lower-speed sickle-bar mowers, which can get tangled with long vetch vines
  • Roll-killing leaves a longer-persisting mulch than mowing, although there may be problems with re-growth. Adding a method of crimping the stems increases the effectiveness. Hairy vetch is harder to kill by rolling than crimson clover.
  • Ron Morse designed a No-Till and Reduced Till Planting Aid, consisting of a heavy coulter and shank assembly with a wavy coulter behind the shank to slice the mulch and leave a 2″-3″ (5-7.3 cm) strip of prepared soil, for planting in a separate operation.
  • Transplanters are available that are designed for use with thick organic mulches.
  • Direct seeding of large-seeded crops is possible using equipment to open a narrow slot deep enough for the seeds. No-till seeders are harder to find: an example has a toolbar planter, 15″ (38 cm) fluted disk blades to cut through the vetch mat, 15″ (38 cm) double disk opener, 12″ (30 cm) cast-iron closing disks, plastic seed pressers and extra weights.

More on no-till

At the Pasa 2022 conference I went to the workshop On-Farm Experience with Organic No-Till, by Sam Malriat from Rodale.

Sam pointed out that no-till methods sequester carbon in the soil, but simply never tilling does not improve the soil. He recommended we not be obsessive about no-till, but move towards reducing tillage. Sometimes shallow tillage can be a good choice, adding value by incorporating organic matter. OM and soil water capacity can be increased enormously by using cover crops, compost or manure, grazing, or a good crop rotation.

You need a very solid, heavy cover crop stand, to provide a thick mulch when terminated. There is a lot of difference in thickness of mulch from rye sown in August and in October. You also need a very competitive cash crop; a successful method of planting into the cover crop residue, and a back-up plan in case something goes wrong. For example, sowing corn into rolled and crimped hairy vetch does not work well, because corn is a heavy feeder and is not very competitive. A better idea is to undersow the corn at V5 or V6 (stages of vegetative growth) with white clover or crimson clover in September (in PA). It’s very important to get good seed to soil contact, and enough moisture. The clover grows after the corn dies. If the clover is left growing into the second year, cabbage can be transplanted into it.

Rye termination timing: When to successfully crimp

“Interested in no-till production, but unsure of how to manage cover crops so they don’t become a problem for the crop that follows?
The most common management concern is when to crimp your cover crop to get a good kill but prevent it from setting seed. Getting the timing right on crimping small grain cover crops like rye isn’t difficult, but it does take a little attention to its growth stage. See this three-minute video for a quick run-down on which stages to look for in order to get that timing right.”

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

Cover Crops for September: wheat and crimson clover

Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Note: the day after I posted this I found I was mistaken in believing barley to die at a warmer temperature than oats, so I’ve edited it.

Focus Cover Crops for September: Winter Wheat and Crimson Clover

In August I wrote about cover crops such as millets, southern peas, buckwheat which are frost-killed. If it’s still too early to sow your winter cover crops, sow summer cover crops. Before I get to the wheat and crimson clover, I’ll mention some other useful seasonal cover crops.

Winter-killed, not frost-killed, cover crops

There are also cover crops that are not frost-killed, but die later in the winter, at colder temperatures, such as oats and barley. 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, so if the weather doesn’t kill them, you will have to turn them under. Be careful buying feed-grade seeds (rather than Organic seed-grade), as they can contain weed seeds including GMO canola.

Late corn undersown with oats, now mowed high, and the sweet potato patch now sown in winter wheat and crimson clover.
Credit Ezra Freeman

If the area is clear of vegetable crops by 40-60 days before frost, sow oats to winter-kill. If possible add a legume (soy and spring peas are easy, and will be killed by the frost, so they won’t complicate food crops next year). For us with a first frost date of October 14-20, the cut-off date for oats is September 7, or September 15 if we really push it. Sowing 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.

We sow oats after growing early sweet corn, spring broccoli, spring-planted potatoes, cabbage, kale, or early season spinach, lettuce, beets, carrots. Spring oats die after three nights at 20°F (-7°C), or a single plummet to 6°F (-17°C), leaving the plot quick to prepare for early crops next year. Winter oats are hardier, but my goal with growing oats is for them to die in winter. After oats or other winter-killed cover crop, we like to plant our early spring food crops, peas, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, March-planted potatoes, spinach and the first sweet corn.

Don’t let your cover crop barley go to seed! Photo USDA

Fall-sown barley (Hordeum vulgare), grows even faster than oats, but not as quickly 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, a post that includes my Short Simple Guide to Winter Cover Crops and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers. Oats, barley, wheat and rye sown too early can head up and seed before you get to winter, making them less useful, and more of a weed problem.

Winter-hardy grass cover crops to sow in September

It is too late for us to usefully sow cover crops that are not frost-hardy, as they won’t make enough growth before getting killed.

Winter rye and winter wheat are two grass cover crops that can be sown in the mid-Atlantic in September. Wheat is easier to incorporate than rye and has less of an allelopathic effect on small seeds, the inhibition of germination that lasts three weeks after rye is turned under. It’s true wheat doesn’t produce as much biomass as rye, so there’s the tradeoff. We sow wheat if the area is ready for cover crops 20-40 days before frost. This allows us to make faster use of those plots in the spring, compared to plots sown to rye.

Winter wheat
Photo USDA

For us wheat is a good, trouble-free winter cover crop. Winter wheat prevents erosion, suppresses weeds, scavenges excess nutrients, adds organic matter, encourages helpful soil microorganisms, and the fine root system improves the tilth. It is less likely than barley or rye to become a weed; easier to kill than barley or rye; cheaper than rye; easier to manage in spring than rye (less bulk, slower to go to seed); tolerates poorly drained, heavier soils better than barley or oats. If you have leftover seed, wheat can be sown in spring – it will not head up, but “wimps out” when the weather gets hot.

The challenges of wheat are that it does not have good tolerance of flooding, and is a little more susceptible than rye or oats to insects and disease.

Secondary cover crops in September:  Include legumes where possible

With careful planning, you can grow next year’s fertilizer for your later spring-planted vegetables! Legumes grow nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots, which can feed the next food crop. You may need to buy a suitable inoculant if you are introducing a new legume species. You may decide to inoculate anyway, for insurance, even if that type of legume is already somewhere in your garden. Before sowing the legume seed, dampen it, sprinkle the inoculant over the seed at a “pepper on your dinner” rate, and stir it in. Then sow the seed. Be sure not to make the seed wetter than slightly damp, or you’ll need to spread it out to dry a bit before you sow.

Two other key parts of being successful are to sow the legume early enough to establish before winter halts growth, and to plan not to need that plot next year until flowering time for that legume. At flowering time, legumes have the maximum amount of the nitrogen nodules they will have. Don’t let the legume flowers set seed, or they may become a weed problem. Take notes on when various legumes flower. If you have a legume that doesn’t reach flowering, it’s not the end of the world, you just get less nitrogen for your money, and won’t be able to supply all the N needs of the following food crop.

September (40-60 days before frost) is a good time to sow clovers here, provided you can supply enough overhead irrigation. They will make some growth in our climate before winter, and then a lot more once spring arrives.

Crimson clover cover crop with bumblebees.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Crimson clover is a good September choice, if you won’t need to prepare the area before it flowers (in central Virginia 4/16-5/2, most usually around 4/20).

For a cover crop to survive the winter, sow winter wheat with Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, hairy vetch, red clover, white clover or fava beans. Hairy vetch takes a few weeks longer than crimson clover to reach flowering. Which you choose will depend what you want to grow there next spring and when you need to plant it.

Clover for green fallow in early September

See August’s post for info on planting a Green fallow plot (Full year cover crops)

Time is running out on this for us, but you may still have enough warm weather where you are. A green fallow crop (all-year cover crop) will replenish the soil and reduce annual weeds for the following year. In late August, or early September, four weeks after transplanting your fall brassicas, especially cabbage and broccoli, but also kale and collards, broadcast a mix of clovers: 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). Crimson clover is a winter annual and will be the biggest and the first to flower, in April. Medium red clover is a biennial and will be the next to flower. White clover is perennial and will take over the plot as the others subside. Be sure to get the medium red clover, not the Mammoth kind that dies when mowed. Likewise, for maximum benefit, get the tall Ladino white clover, not the low-growing “wild” type. In March, mow down the old brassica stumps and let the clovers flourish. You will be mowing this patch about once a month from March to October next year to prevent the crimson clover and the annual weeds from seeding.

Cover crops to sow soon after your first frost date

I’ll say more about this next month, and because I want this website to be useful to a geographically wide range of growers, I’m including a preview here. If the area is ready for cover crops up to 10 days past the frost date, sow winter wheat or winter rye with hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas. Winter rye is hardier than any other cover crop and can take later planting dates. But it is a bit harder than wheat to incorporate in the spring. Sow winter rye from 14 days before to 28 days after first fall frost. See Working with the time you have left in the Summer Cover Crops post. Austrian winter peas can be sown later than other legumes, it’s too late for clovers.

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and many 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.

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.

Planning Winter Cover Crops

 

A cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

If you haven’t already made a plan for winter cover crops, this is a good time to do it. Having plants growing through the winter, or at least into the winter until they get killed by cold temperatures, will improve your soil both physically (the roots hold the soil in place, preventing erosion, and they open up channels that improve the drainage) and biologically (the soil microorganisms thrive when they have active plants to cooperate with, exchanging nutrients). Cover crops will also reduce the number of weeds you have next year, because they crowd out weed seedlings. In some cases they even inhibit weed seeds from germinating.

I have some slideshows about cover crops, and am including one at the end of this post.

Choosing the “perfect” cover crops can be confusing, but any is better than none, so I encourage you to experiment and keep records, so you can improve your choices each year. It helps to know your first frost date, and your winter-hardiness zone (the lowest temperature your garden is likely to encounter). A two-week delay in sowing can seriously reduce the effectiveness of the cover crop, so follow these guidelines if you can.

A cover crop of overwintered oats the year they didn’t die.
Photo Pam Dawling

Short Simple Guide to Winter Cover Crops

  1. 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. Buckwheat, soy, cowpeas, spring peas, sunnhemp, Japanese millet, sorghum-sudangrass will frost-kill. Forage radish lab-lab bean or bell beans will die back and leave almost bare soil. Don’t sow a winter cover crop yet. If sown too early, oats head up in the fall and even drop seed.
  2. If the area is clear of vegetable crops by 40-60 days before frost, sow oats to winter-kill. If possible add a legume (soy and spring peas are easy, and will be killed by the frost, so they won’t complicate food crops next year). For us with a first frost date of October 14, the cut-off date for oats is September 7. This would be after growing early sweet corn, spring broccoli, cabbage, spring-planted potatoes or early season spinach, lettuce, beets, carrots. Oats will winterkill completely at 6°F (-17°C) or even milder than that, leaving the plot quick to prepare for early crops next year. So plan to put your early crops where you had oats in the winter. See the slideshow for more about oats.

    Crimson clover cover crop in flower.
    Photo McCune Porter
  3. If the area is ready for cover crops 20-40 days before frost, sow winter wheat. Add a legume such as crimson clover, if you won’t need to prepare the area before it flowers (in central Virginia 4/16-5/2, most usually around 4/20). You get the most nitrogen from the legumes if they reach the flowering stage before you kill them off in spring. If you have a legume that doesn’t reach flowering, it’s not the end of the world, you just get less nitrogen for your money. It is too late to usefully sow cover crops that are not frost-hardy, or even oats, which won’t make enough growth before getting killed.

    Cover crop of winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons
  4. 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. Winter rye is hardier than any other cover crop and can take later planting dates. But it is a bit harder than wheat to incorporate in the spring. Austrian winter peas can be sown later than other legumes.
  5. If you are up to 3-4 weeks past your average frost date, (we choose November 7 here, where our average first frost is October 14), sow winter rye alone. It’s too late for any legumes.

    Cover crop of winter rye still small in March, but holding the soil together.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  6. If you are later than 3-4 weeks past your average first frost date, leave the weeds or crop remains growing. It’s too late to sow a cover crop, and you’ll do more harm than good tilling up the soil. You can mow the weeds anytime you see lots of flowers and seed heads. The weed roots will hold the soil together and help feed the soil microorganisms until early spring. Be prepared to act soon in spring, so you don’t get weed seeds.
Quick Guide to Winter Cover Crops.
Pam Dawling

More Options for Each of These Time-frames

  1. 60-80 days before frost: You could follow a frost-tender cover crop with an over-wintering cover crop, for best effect. If you leave the dead tender cover crops in place, in early spring the winter weeds will start growing in the open space, so be ready for fast action. For the very earliest spring crops, forage radish lab-lab bean or bell beans will die back and leave almost bare soil. While still growing, they suppress weeds. BUT fast-maturing spring vegetables will not do well with no-till cover crops unless you add N fertilizer, as they need nitrogen more quickly than can be got from no-till.
  2. 40-60 days before frost: Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, or red clover are other options for legumes, but they won’t die when the oats do. They are relatively easy to incorporate in spring. Frost-killed cover crops can also be combined with oats. Or for a cover crop to survive the winter, sow winter barley or winter wheat with Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, hairy vetch, red clover, fava beans. Hairy vetch takes a few weeks longer than crimson clover to reach flowering. Which you choose will depend what you want to grow there next spring and when you need to plant it. After oats or other winter-killed cover crop, we like to plant our early spring food crops, peas, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, March-planted potatoes, spinach and the first sweet corn.

    Cover crop height and thickness in late April.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons
  3. 20-40 days before frost: Winter rye, or winter barley are also options for the cereal grain part of the mix, if you have those seeds on hand. In central Virginia, it’s a mistake to sow rye as early as August, as it can set seed. Austrian winter peas, or red clover are other legume options if that’s what you have. Sometimes it pays to use what you already have, as it may not give good germination if saved over to next fall. Winter rye needs 3-4 weeks after tilling in, in spring, to break down and to disarm the allelopathic compounds that stop small seeds germinating. Plan for the next food crops to be ones planted after late April, such as late corn plantings, winter squash, transplanted watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, June-planted potatoes, fall brassicas, and second plantings of summer squash, cucumbers, beans.
  4. Up to 10 days past the frost date: it’s too late for clovers. Austrian winter peas winter-kill in zone 6, but are hardy in zone 7. Hardy to 0°F (-18°C). AWP bloom in late April at Twin Oaks, before hairy vetch. Suitable crops in the year before using Austrian winter peas are the late-finishing winter squash, melons, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, middle sweet corn, June-planted potatoes. The same group of crops are suitable for following AWP, as they are planted after May 1. You can sow AWP several weeks later than clovers, but at least 35 days before first hard freeze (25°F/-4°C) – in zone 7, 8/10–10/24 (11/8 is sometimes OK)

    Winter rye headed up. Mow or turn it under very soon! Don’t let it shed seed.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  5. Up to 3-4 weeks past your average frost date: no really, it’s too late for any other cover crop. If you don’t have winter rye, don’t till! Leave the weeds, see below.
  6. Later than 3-4 weeks past your average first frost date: no, really, do not till! You could mow and tarp, to kill the weeds before spring. I’m not sure what the soil life thinks about that, though! You could mow again in early spring, or till and sow oats, if you won’t be planting a food crop in the following 8 weeks, giving the oats time to make respectable growth before turning them under.

Create a crop rotation for vegetables that includes good cover crops

If you include winter cover crops when planning a crop rotation for your vegetables, you can tweak your plan to maximize your cover crop opportunities. Here’s the steps:

 Figure out how much area is needed for each major crop (the ones needing the largest amount of space).

  1. Measure and map the space available
  2. Divide into equal plots big enough for your major crops
  3. Group compatible crops together to fill out each plot
  4. Set a good sequence, maximizing cover crop opportunities
  5. Include best possible cover crops at every opportunity
  6. Try it for one year, then make improvements

For more details, see my slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops on SlideShare.net

Advanced Options for Winter Cover Crops

Sweet corn with undersown soybean cover crop. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Undersowing

Sometimes you can undersow the cover crop between the rows of a growing food crop, to take over after the food crop dies of frost or mowing. We do this with our last planting of sweet corn, and with fall broccoli and cabbage.

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. The leaf canopy of the food crop should not yet be closed. Often the best time is at the last cultivation, often about a month after planting the food crop. With vining food crops, it’s important to sow the cover crop before the vines run.

Choose vigorous food crops, but cover crops that are only moderately vigorous. Ensure the seedbed is clean and the soil crumbs small enough. Use a high seeding rate, whether broadcasting or drilling, and irrigate sufficiently.

A no-till cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and clover.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

No-till Winter Cover Crops

In the spring, kill the cover crop without tilling it in, and plant food crops into the dying residue. There are three ways to kill cover crops without herbicides:

  1. Winter-killed cover crops for early spring food crops
  2. Mow-killed cover crops.
  3. Roll-killing (but it usually requires special equipment).

We have had one year in 10 as a no-till year. We use no-till cover crops before Roma paste tomatoes, which are transplanted in early May. We don’t need early-ripening for these, making them a good no-till food crop. The soil under no-till cover crops stays colder than tilled soil, slowing the plant growth down.

Late-spring transplanted crops such as late tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, Halloween pumpkins, or successions of cucumbers and squash can do very well after a winter-hardy legume-grass mix no-till cover crop.

To be an effective mulch, you need to get a thick sturdy stand of cover crops, which means sowing in plenty of time, and being generous with the seed. To make the timing work, you need a previous food crop that finishes before the sowing date 4-5 weeks before the average frost (that’s September 7-14 for us).

Timing is also critical in the spring. For maximum N, the legumes in the mix will be flowering right when you need to plant the food crop. Mow the cover crop mix close to the ground, and plant right into the stubble. Transplants or big seeded crops work well. The ground will be relatively hard – you probably can’t make a furrow for small seeds).

It’s not all over with the weed-prevention after that. In our humid climate the no-till mulch biodegrades after 6-10 weeks. In July we roll hay between the rows, to top up the mulch.

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers 2019 60 mins