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.
Short Simple Guide to 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
More Options for Each of These Time-frames
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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).
- Measure and map the space available
- Divide into equal plots big enough for your major crops
- Group compatible crops together to fill out each plot
- Set a good sequence, maximizing cover crop opportunities
- Include best possible cover crops at every opportunity
- 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
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.
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:
- Winter-killed cover crops for early spring food crops
- Mow-killed cover crops.
- 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