Blog > Organic Garden > Plant a Fall Cover Crop to Improve Your Garden Soil RSS

Plant a Fall Cover Crop to Improve Your Garden Soil

Raised Garden Beds in the Eartheasy Store

Join the Eartheasy Community

Sign up for our Newsletter:

* indicates required

With ‘cover crops’ your garden will work for you right through the winter months.

By Greg Seaman Posted Sep 21, 2011

Cover Crop As the last of our summer vegetable crops are harvested and the garden beds are cleared of plant debris, the fall weather is still warm enough to sow over-winter ‘cover crops’, which restore fertility and humus, and enrich the soil for planting next spring. Cover crops are tilled under in late winter or early spring.

In our garden, we see the soil level drop about 3 – 4” in each bed after the vegetable crops are harvested. This is a visible reminder that growing a food crop consumes considerable organic matter.

Cover crops, such as fall rye, crimson clover, buckwheat and others are easy to grow. When they are digested by soil microorganisms they restore organic matter and nutrient levels in the soil. Because they are sown thickly, they also help to outcompete weeds. Cover crops also control erosion from heavy winter rains, and help prevent the soil from compacting over winter.

Depending on your growing region, some cover crops will die during the coldest weather. The crop residue is still a valued supplement in the spring.

What cover crops should you plant?

Seed companies sell cover crop seeds as individual crops or as mixes of grasses and legumes. Common annual cover crops suitable for fall planting are:

Hardy legumes

These nitrogen-fixing crops provide a fertilizer as well as organic matter. Planted in fall, they grow slowly until late winter when growth speeds up. Legume crops may not mature until May in some regions. Cut down these cover crops in spring before they go to flower, then till them under.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa): Grows to 2 feet high; hardy to -15° F. Hairy vetch is considered the hardiest annual legume. Vetch tolerates poor soil, and matures late. Sow 1 to 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Field pea (Pisum arvense and P. sativus): Grows 6 inches to several feet tall. Field peas are hardy to 10 to 20°F. ‘Austrian Winter’ pea is low growing and late maturing. ‘Magnus’ grows to 5 feet. Sow 2 to 4 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Berseem clover (Trifolium alexandrinum): Grows 1 to 2 feet high. Berseem clover is hardy to 20° F. Produces high amounts of nitrogen. Sow 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Crimson clover (T. incarnatum): Grows 18 inches high, and is hardy to 10° F. Crimson clover matures late and fixes less nitrogen than other clovers. Sow 1/2 to 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet. If allowed to go to seed, Crimson clover can become an invasive weed.


Cover crops from the grass family grow quickly, tolerate cold, and improve the structure of compacted soils. Thickly sown grasses add increased organic matter in comparison to legumes. Grasses also control erosion which is a real benefit in wet regions. Grasses do not have the benefit of fixing nitrogen as legumes do. Annual grass cover crops are cut down or mowed in spring before seeds set, and then tilled under.

Annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum): Grows 2 to 3 feet high; hardy to -20° F. Fast growing and tolerates flooding. The seeds are inexpensive, and the grass is very hardy. Ryegrass can become weedy. Sow 1/2 to 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Winter rye (Secale cereale): Grows 4 to 5 feet tall; hardy to -30° F. Best grass for cold winter climates: tolerant of low fertility, acidic soils. Sow 2 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Oats (Avena sativa): Grows 2 to 3 feet tall: hardy to 10 to 20° F. Produces the least organic matter of grasses, but is tolerant of wet soils. Oats usually succumb to winterkill, but the residue is still beneficial to the soil. Sow 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare): Grows 2 to 3 feet tall; hardy 0 to 10° F. Fast maturing and tolerant of dry and saline soils: intolerant of acidic soil. Sow 2 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

A common mix offered by seed companies is hairy vetch and annual rye. The vetch fixes atmospheric nitrogen, while the rye uses leftover nitrogen. Nitrogen from the decomposing vetch will cause the rye to decompose more quickly and not tie up nitrogen as long.

To plant cover crops, sow seeds at least 30 days before the first expected fall frost date in your growing region. For cover crops that are only marginally hardy in your area, push back the sowing date to 60 days before the first frost. The more established a cover crop is before winter the more likely it will overwinter successfully.

Are there drawbacks to planting fall cover crops?

Grasses, such as fall rye, can attract the adult wireworm beetles to lay eggs. If you have wireworm problems you may want to reconsider planting fall grasses as cover crops.

Since cover crops shade the soil, they can keep the soil wet and cool in a late spring, which can lead to poor seed germination. We turn under cover crops early in these conditions.

Attention must be paid to the timing of digging in cover crops. If the plants get too mature, the stalks can get woody and be harder to cut. Cover crops are much easier to turn under while the leaves are still lush and green.

What if you have no time to plant a fall cover crop?

An alternative to planting fall cover crops is to add leaves, plentiful in autumn, in a thick layer over the soil. Leaves will block air-born or smother soil-born weeds during the winter months, and are easier to incorporate into the soil in the spring. Cover crops usually require more work to chop up and hoe into the soil, by comparison.

Using leaves instead of cover crops has one obvious drawback – they blow away in autumn winds and winter storms! When we use leaves to cover a garden bed, we cover the leaves with fishnet and weight down the corners of the fishnet with rocks.

How to ‘harvest’ your cover crop

Harvest your crop cover crop Cover crops are mowed or cut in early spring, at least 3-4 weeks before the bed is planted with the intended crop. We use a garden shears to chop the cover crop to a few inches above the soil. Once the mass is bunched on the bed, it gets chopped again with the shears. The process takes only a few minutes per bed.

Turning under the cut cover crop requires more effort. We use a sharp hoe to chop into the stubble and to cut the root mass which surfaces during the hoeing. Some stubble and plant residue will still be visible, but this breaks down quickly.

cover crop cover crop

Building healthy soil is an ongoing project for every gardener. Even where topsoil is organically rich, it will become depleted within a few crop rotations. Gardeners need to revitalize the soil in garden beds regularly. Even buying “new” topsoil to develop additional growing space is no guarantee that it will contain organic matter. You may need to ‘feed’ the soil to get it up to gardening standards. Cover crops are very useful in this regard.

One final observation about over-winter cover crops may seem trivial, but I find satisfaction in seeing something growing in the garden during winter. Even when cover crops succumb to harsh winter weather, the residue lying on the beds is a valued soil amendment. The same beds, left empty through the winter, would be gradually occupied by native weeds which need pulling in the spring.

This winter you can have your garden continue to work for you, and come spring you’ll feel you have a head start on the season, thanks to your over-wintered cover crops!

– By Greg Seaman, founder and editor of Eartheasy.


Posted in Organic Garden Tags , , , , ,
  • sam

    nice articles by eartheasy to turn a home into a green home. keep posting more about improving the soil fertility.

  • Nice! Just wanted to respond. I thoroughly loved your post. Keep up the great work.

  • Curtistine Earnest

    Is there any nitrogen benefit when you use dried leaves? In the past, I have used dried leaves covered by cotton seed meal.

    • Greg Seaman

      Dried leaves will not contribute nitrogen, but they will contibute carbon which is a valued amendment for soil or compost. Cotton seed meal will contribute nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, and numerous minor elements.

  • Linda

    A great article on cover cropping! An alternative to to turning under the chopped "crop" is to put the mass into the compost. It should break down quickly, and then you just use it on the beds. It can be difficult to turn under plants on raised beds, especially if the person is short, like me.

  • gena Womack

    wow, I did not know this. My hubby and I just planted our second garden this summer and have never done anything in the fall. Thank you so much for this post and teaching us how to improve the soil fertility.

  • Even i loved your post.

  • pam

    Less work and more effective than to work cover crop in, is to let the chickens do it!!
    if you dont have chickens, you have to do their work. 🙂

    • kimj1129

      Ducks and geese are great at “tilling” the garden once everything is harvested too. A friend of mine keeps ducks just for that purpose.

      • And a bonus is that ducks will reduce your slug population.

  • Anonymous

    I really impressed with your article,thanks fro sharing.

  • MyraSaidIt

    I have some old garden seeds that may sprout and grow a plant without producting any food.   I am thinking about planting them anyway and just see what I get.    Maybe they will grow some plants that can be chopped up and turned back into mulch.  Has anyone done this?   If it will work, at least those old seeds have not been wasted.

  • autumn

    First of all, thank you for this website! It’s been so helpful to me! I started gardening 2 years ago and love it! Being so new to this, your website is invaluable!

    I’m planning on planting a “green manure” crop soon (I’m in KY) to amend the soil. This is my second year gardening and didn’t do this previously. I read your article on saving cleanup until Spring… Do I just plant the green manure crop around the existing plants? Also, do I have to rotate plants if I’m amending the soil every year before planting? I didn’t move my tomatoes this year because the back of my garden is a privacy fence and I didn’t want to block the sun from other plants but they didn’t do nearly as well… but we had really hot weather this past summer too… maybe that’s why it was not a good year.

    You also talk about mulching once the plants are established in Spring. Are there any plants you do not mulch around?

    • We do not advise planting green manure around existing crops. Ideally, green manure is planted after a crop is harvested. By planting the entire bed in green manure, it is easier to cut and work into the soil upon maturity.
      Tomatoes can be planted successively in a garden bed, assuming you have prepared the bed with nutrients and amendments such as pest if needed. But we have better luck with tomatoes by rotating them into different beds each year.
      Tomatoes can do well in a hot summer if you keep up with the watering needs. Tomatoes do not do as well when exposed to rain or when the leaves are wetted during hand watering. We hand water our tomatoes below the foliage and this way there are no fungal diseases affecting the plants.

  • ElenaWill

    I agree this is a good cultural practice and it is nice to see it grow when little else is growing.

    • Good point.

    • jane

      what do you mean by a good cultural practice?

  • I think crops are really helpful to increase the organic level of soil. If we plant cover crop properly, it will help us to increase the fertility of soil which will help to other plants as well to grow.

  • Thanks for your comment. And the cover crops help retain soil structure over the winter rainy months by minimizing soil compression and erosion.

  • Kyle Koelsch

    Great Website Greg,
    In regards to timing the planting your cover crop, what if the ideal planting time of your cover crop conflicts with the harvest time of any crops remaining in the garden? i.e. winter rye/vetch to be planted when corn, squash, pumpkins, etc. are still producing.

    • We plant cover crops in any available bed at this time of year. Beds with later crops are left to finish. Since the beds are rotated each season, the beds left unplanted with cover crops will get their cover crop next season.

  • Daniel Schenker

    What’s the best way to plant a fall cover crop of mixed rye grass and crimson clover in a cleaned-up garden–just broadcast the seed, or till first to roughen the surface? Would tilling at this time help eliminate weeds (like stubborn nutsedge), or make them worse?

    • You can scratch up the surface with a steel rake and broadcast the seed manually. Large operations might use a seed spreader. Once the seed is broadcast, we rake again lightly to turn them under so the birds don’t get the seed. Them water lightly.
      Tilling may not make a difference with regards to embedded weed seeds. However, between rotations is a good time to pull invasive root-spreading weeds like horsetail.

  • Thanks for your comment.
    We have more difficulty coming up with organic matter to build soil than the nitrogen.

    • Joel

      One more thought on this: if you do plant a random assortment of things, cut them up or till them in before they get too woody. Certain plants, when reaching more mature stages will have a higher lignin content, which takes longer to break down.

      You might want to consider adding peat, or finely shredded compost if you are wanting higher organic matter, depending on the size of the plot.

  • bb49

    I have been planting fall rye in my garden most year and have found one huge benefit is that it keeps the spring weeds to a minimum.
    But last fall I was unable to get it planted, and would like to plant it this spring. Is it possible to sow it in the early spring, possible not long after the snow has disappeared?

    • Yes, it’ll do fine as an early spring planting.

  • Pearl

    Have been planting winter rye. We have bitterly cold winters and it survives. However, it is too difficult to hoe back into the soil in the spring and the wait period is too long to get to planting. Also, it provides no nitrogen. Am thinking of a mixture of white clover, hairy vetch, annual or winter rye, and field peas. Or, just all field peas, which will die during the winter. If I go with field peas, which will winter kill, will the soil be enriched with nitrogen in spring when I hoe the plants back in? Thank you.

    • You could mix in some rye to give structure for the peas. (The rye should be easy to till being thinly sown.) Field peas are a very efficient nitrogen fixing crop which breaks down readily, the nitrogen then becoming available. Cut the rye when tilling the dead peas, and cover with sheet plastic during heavy rains.

      • Pearl

        Thank you.

  • J L

    is it ok to put dog waste and bunny rabbit manure (from my daughters’ 4-h pet ) in a garden that you use for personal use with crops such as carrots, broccoli and tomatoes? i usually dig down 8-10 inches to bury the waste but sometimes in the early winter i cant get it into the ground very far. is there anything in the dog waste especially that would be bad for the garden, and therefore the human consumers of the degraded dog droppings?

    • I do not recommend putting dog waste directly into your garden soil, as it can harbor roundworms. The waste can be used however, if it is well composted. In our garden we have a separate compost pile reserved for material that requires more complete composting. This is an open ‘farm style’ compost bin (separate from the compost tumblers which are used for food and garden scraps and cycle relatively quickly) into which we throw large plant skeletons and other bulky material that takes more time to break down. Materials in this bin may take a year to thoroughly break down and compost, we just dig the finished compost from the bottom of the pile.

Blog > Organic Garden > Plant a Fall Cover Crop to Improve Your Garden Soil