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How To Plant A Garden Cover Crop With Field Peas This Fall

Did you know that you can actually plant field peas as a cover crop for your garden as a way to help improve your soil? That’s right – peas can be for more than just consuming!

Cover crops are essentially quick-growing crops that you plant in your garden or raised beds after you are done clearing out your crops. They are usually not intended for harvesting, but still help your garden immensely.

Cover crops are beneficial in so many different ways. From helping to deter pests and insects from harboring down in the soil during the cold winter months, to replenishing vital nutrients that have been depleted during the summer growing season, cover crops are your fall garden helpers!

Field peas that have been planted as a cover crop. They have tiny white blooms.
Field peas provide excellent soil protection while also adding in vital nutrients often lost during the growing season. They also look beautiful growing with their tiny white blooms.

Different cover crops can help accomplish different tasks, so which one you choose will depend on your soil’s needs. They are all low-maintenance, help to stop weeds, and help recharge your soil with little to no work on your part. 

But if you are in the need of a nitrogen-fixing, soil-improving, easy-to-manage crop, then field peas are the cover crop for you! Read on to find out exactly how field peas work as cover crops and why you might want to implement them into your garden this fall. 

Benefits Of All Cover Crops In The Fall

As mentioned above, cover crops can do many different things for gardens. Here are some of the advantages of using cover crops:

First, they all help to stop weeds by giving their seeds no bare soil to land on and germinate. If you have just finished clearing out your garden in early fall, all of that bare soil is just asking for weed seeds to be blown in or dropped by wildlife.

By planting a cover crop, you are ensuring that nothing can grow in your soil besides what you want to grow there. In addition, all cover crops also help to stop erosion from occurring. As it rains or the wind blows hard, soil erosion is possible.

Bare soil - Planting cover crops like field peas will help to prevent weeds from germinating and taking over during the off season.
Bare soil is just begging for weed seeds to land on and start growing. Using cover crops helps to avoid bare soils during the off seasons.

You don’t need to worry about soil loss if your soil is getting held together by the roots of cover crops. Not only do the roots hold the soil together, they also help to aerate the soil. This helps to loosen dense soils – all without you having to lift a hand.

Another great advantage is that when you are ready to plant your garden in the spring, you either mow down or till in the cover crop. As you do this, the cover crop is turned into organic matter that aids in your soil’s overall composition. 

The Biggest Advantage

The biggest reason why you should plant cover crops is to help replenish the nutrients in your soil. It takes a lot of nutrients and energy for plants to grow and produce vegetables or flowers during the growing months. 

If you don’t return those items to the soil in one form or another, your crops will start to suffer as the years go on. You can use cover crops to help re-energize that soil. They put those nutrients back to where you need them, just in time for spring to roll around. 

For more information about using cover crops in general, check out “How To Grow A Fall Cover Crop.” You can even listen all about it in our podcast, “How To Plant A Cover Crop In Your Garden This Fall.”

Why Choose Field Peas? 

With so many different types of cover crops, why would you want to choose field peas?

field peas being used as a cover crop newly planted and covered in frost
Field peas are cold hardy and will go dormant once winter hits.

First off, field peas are pretty cold hardy, so they are perfect for growing in locations that have cold winters. In fact, they can handle temperatures that get well below freezing. Varieties like Austraian Field Peas or Dundale Peas are two excellent, cool-hardy varieties.

After you plant the seeds, they will germinate and start to grow until freezing temperatures hit. After that, the seeds will go dormant until the warmth of early spring arrives. This results in little to no work on your part to maintain. 

In addition – and the main reason why field peas are a great option – is that they help to fix the nitrogen in the soil. Basically, field peas can absorb the nitrogen around them. That nitrogen then gets transferred into your soil when the peas are cut. 

Nitrogen is vital for plants to have enough energy to grow and produce vegetables and fruit. When plants don’t have adequate nitrogen in the soil, they will struggle to grow properly and often end up stunted. 

It is possible to use chemical fertilizers to add nitrogen back into your soil. However, the best and longest-lasting way to organically add nitrogen back into the soil is by using nitrogen-fixing plants like winter field peas. 

Planting & Maintaining Field Peas As A Cover Crop

Now that you know why field peas are a good cover crop for your garden space, let’s talk about how to go about doing that. It’s an extremely easy process and one that will leave you wondering why you haven’t been using cover crops in the past. 

Site Preparation – Plant Field Peas As A Cover Crop

Thankfully, field peas aren’t really particular about what type of soil they grow in. They do, however, require that the soil is well-draining. They also need a location that receives full sunlight (at least 6 hours each day). 

A hoe removing a weed growing in soil.
Before you plant your field peas, be sure to clean out your garden or raised beds, removing any weeds, mulch, or remaining plant material.

To prepare the planting area, remove all of the weeds and any remaining plant matter or mulch. If you still have a few plants growing and producing, you can always plant the field peas around those plants. Lightly rake up the top two inches of soil. 

Aim for getting the field peas in the ground around 4 to 6 weeks before your First Expected Frost Date. This gives the crop enough time to germinate and become a bit established without growing too much. 

Planting Field Peas

The easiest way to plant field peas is simply by broadcasting the seeds out by hand. You can choose to use a broadcast seed spreader for larger areas if you prefer. 

The goal is not to make hundreds of tiny holes and space seeds out perfectly apart. The goal is just to space the seeds out as well as possible without taking too much time (or effort). You can either rake the seeds to set them in the dirt or apply a bit of soil over top. Water well to help set in the seeds. 

Winter Care – Plant Field Peas As A Cover Crop

Keep the soil evenly moist until you start to see germination. The field pea seeds need to have adequate moisture in order to sprout properly. Be sure to avoid standing water though. 

A man planting pea seeds one at a time.
You don’t need to waste time and energy planting seeds one at a time when using them as a cover crop. The goal isn’t proper spacing for harvesting, it’s just to set the seed.

If soil temperatures are around 50º Fahrenheit or higher, then the seeds should sprout in around one to two weeks. If the soil temperatures are cooler, it may take as long as three to four weeks.

Once the cooler temps of winter hit, the field peas will go dormant. There is nothing more you need to do until spring rolls around. Don’t be alarmed if the growth is a bit sparse at this time. It will fill in substantially in early spring.

Early Spring Care – Plant Field Peas As A Cover Crop

As mentioned, when the soil starts to thaw out and warm up a bit in early spring, you will start to see good growth with the field peas. The plants will eventually start to flower. It is at this point that the plants have the maximum amount of nitrogen available. 

Keep the field peas watered well while it is growing. Water the plants deeply but less often. This allows the plants’ roots to reach deep into the soil, which creates stronger root structures and overall healthier plants.

Killing Off The Field Peas

About three to four weeks before you need to plant your garden and after the field peas have reached full bloom, you need to kill off the cover crop. If you fail to do this vital step, your garden space will be inundated with growing pea pods as opposed to being ready for your next season’s vegetable crops. 

Field peas blooming and ready to be cut for green mulch.
As soon as field peas start to bloom, they are at their max level of nitrogen and need to be cut down for free mulch or tilled into the soil.

For a no-till method, simply mow down the field peas with a riding or push mower. You can even use trimmers or weed eaters for smaller areas or for raised beds. Leave the plant matter as it falls to be used as green mulch and to allow for maximum nutrient absorption. 

Avoid pulling plants out as the roots left behind will break down and add nitrogen deep into your soil. They will also add lots of organic matter as the roots die. You can remove the leftover plant matter before planting and add it to your compost pile if you wish. 

As an alternative, you can use a tiller to turn the peas back into the soil a month before planting. All of the plant material will break up and turn into organic matter and the nitrogen will be released.

Whichever method you use, your garden soil will now be re-energized, full of nitrogen, and ready to take on a brand new season of growing crops and vegetables!  

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