Contemplating Cover Crops

For the first time in my gardening life, I have managed t clean out the vegetable beds BEFORE the snow started to fall. Which leaves me with an interesting dilemma. What do I do with the beds since there are no dead plants and overly hardy weeds growing in them?

My neighbor says that I should do what she does and cover the beds with clear plastic. I am not so certain about this as I had one of my beds like this for the whole summer in an attempt to solarize the bed. I think all I managed to do was provide a decent greenhouse for super weeds like Canada Thistle and Creeping Charlie. The plastic grew brittle and broke in the sun/rain/cold/drought merry-go-round of a climate we have here.

I could just le it lay fallow. It is a time honored tradition after all. I watched for two decades as the farmers where I grew up followed a plant/fallow/till rotation year after year. But, since I went through the trouble of actually getting the beds clear, I feel like I should be doing something.

And so now I am contemplating cover crops. This fine bit of alliteration is causing more trouble than it needs to. The problem is, what exactly do I plant for a cover crop? The choices are surprisingly dizzying. Rye, winter wheat, clover, hairy vetch and dozens more are available.

The first place I need to start is nitrogen fixing vs. nitrogen using.

Legume cover crops pull nitrogen out of the air and put it into the ground. This is called nitrogen fixing. The cover crops in this group include clovers, hairy vetch, winter peas and alfalfa. These cover crops can help enrich the soil by adding nitrogen to the soil, which is a vital nutrient that plants need to grow.

Non-nitrogen fixing plants include rye, oats, winter wheat, and buck wheat. These don’t add much to the soil while they are growing but they do help to encourage good soil by preventing erosion and keeping the soil from compacting itself.

I am most interested in the nitrogen fixing kind, so I will stick with those.

Cover crops as a whole was a practice that fell out of favor with the invention of fertilizer. I don’t know if you know this, but fertilizer was literally invented because scientists feared that the planet would be unable to feed themselves based on the then current levels of nitrogen fixed in the soil. Fertilizer does put nitrogen back in the soil more quickly and less expensively than cover crops, but as I am a hobby gardener, the economic and time gains are insignificant. Not to mention that cover crops are just nicer for the environment.

Visiting one of my favorite seed purveyors, I see that in the nitrogen fixing side of cover crops they have Austrian Winter Peas, Crimson Clover, Hairy Vetch, Ladino Clover, Lespedeza and Red Clover. The more I think of it, the clover is probably a bad idea. After all, the rest of the year I consider this plant a weed in my beds and lawn. I imagine that it works like vampires. Once you invite them in, they cause all sorts of harm and won’t leave until you put a stake through their heart. And as I do not know where the heart of a clover is, best not to invite them in.

That leaves me with Austrian Winter Peas, Hairy Vetch and Lespedeza. I am intrigued by the sellers promise that Lespedeza will turn poor soil good, like some kind of cover crop evangelical minister but closer inspection shows that this cover crop does not do well in drought. Since I never know when Cleveland will decide that it is a good time to drought, I will avoid it. Hairy Vetch just sounds like something my kids will be putting on as part of a Halloween costume. So, that leaves me with Austrian Winter Peas.

So we will see how it goes. I will see if I will be contemplating cover crops again next year or not.

16 thoughts on “Contemplating Cover Crops
  1. I posted about cover crops here. You all are slightly milder than we are here in Ithaca, but our climates aren’t all that dissimilar. There are some clovers and other legumes that winterkill in our zone. But I’d suggest planting much earlier. It’s pretty late now for most cover crops to germinate and get much growth, unless we have another warm late fall and early winter like last year.


  2. As stated it may be too late, but if you do plant, the peas are a wonderful choice. They are, as you said legumes, and are an annual. When I had my large garden I never planted covers. I used bedding hay which had been cleaned by a small pig. Oliver was a half breed Pot Belly. He did a great job of eating all the seeds. He was a great help and was rewarded with much fresh produce.


  3. I’ll be interested to see how this goes for you–I was vaguely wondering about planting oats as a cover crop next year, purely because I want to see what the oats look like before they get into my Quaker box.


  4. Just curious, Hanna, about why you regard clover in the lawn as a bad thing? It stays green in dry times, doesn’t need mowing as much as grass, and feeds the soil. I don’t even mind it in the garden because it can be a bit of a living mulch, keeping weedier plants at bay. But each to their own; I know some worry about clover attracting bees, because they have allergies.


  5. Before the snow falls, we cover our garden with a thick layer of mulch. Traditionally we use the leaves we rake up and some of our neighbors’ as well.

    This year, we bought some straw and scored some more for free. The mulch keeps the weeds down. It breaks down over the winter, contributing to the soil in the process.


  6. Craig on

    I’m not sure where you are. But your best bet to see what oats look like is to plant them in the spring. They winter kill if you plant them in fall where I am. They are usually a spring-planted grain


  7. Spooky–I was just thinking about this topic myself, now that I’ve enlarged the garden significantly. Please let us know what you do,and how it turns out!



  8. Good cover crops for this time of year are winter wheat and winter rye. You can broadcast them and leave them bare on the ground or for better results you can broadcast them and cover with wheat/oat or barley straw or lightly till them under. This time of year you’ll have the best results with covering or tilling because the frost can kill the germinating embryos.
    Low growing clovers like dutch white clover and sweet yellow clover will work well too if you need the nitrogen fixing capabilities of these plants. They take a lot longer to germinate and you may not see much action from them until spring. Apply them the same way for best results.
    If you can’t till or cover and you’re concerned about the frost then you can wait until you have snow cover and then “Frost Seed” the crops right on top of the snow. They will come up as soon as the weather allows them too. Clover can thrive when planted this way since the seeds need scarifying most of the time to do their best. The frost cracks the outer shell making it easier for the embryo to get started.
    White clover and yellow clover are, for the most part, very short and won’t bother anything in the garden if they continue to come up and they will attract bees and pollinaters to the area as well as fix nitrogen and croud out weeds during the growing season. Some people plant these clovers as permanent crops in permaculture gardens to keep weeds out of the paths and unused areas.


  9. Your selection sounds good to me, except for the “preferred by deer” part! Looking forward to your results, though.


  10. We’ve always planted winter rye, sometimes as late as the third week of November. Our killing frost in the Catskills traditionally happens in late September, though this year not until October 28. It never fails to germinate and it’s great for keeping down the weeds and grass in spring. It grinds up just fine when I till, the roots are quite shallow. We plant it by tossing it helter skelter from a bag, a week later, the little shoots come up.


  11. Quit your clover hatin’!

    Just embrace it. Its a good looking plant, where did the hate come from?


  12. The clover “Hatin” thing most likely comes from the very poor teachng by companies like Scotts who managed to convince the world that clover is a “Broad Leaf Weed” and needs to be irradicated at any cost, even when it might mean cancer for our dogs and children because of the chemicals they produce to kill it.
    At dirt works we address this clover myth on a daily basis with our customers. Clover “Hatin” is a very well rooted doctrine that will take a long time to die. It took 75 years of preaching to creat this mess, it may be a liitle while before people get the message about the benefits of clover in gardens and lawns.


  13. See, you all are making me feel guilty about not loving clover *blush*.

    In the lawn it is great, but I have had some serious problems with in in my beds. Not so great there. 🙁

    Thanks to everyone for all the great info!


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