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How To Grow a Fall Cover Crop – Recharge Your Garden!

Now that your summer gardening has come to an end, your planting and growing is over for the year, right? Wrong! In fact, one of the best things you can do for your garden is to plant and grow a fall cover crop. It’s the most beneficial crop you can grow that won’t actually produce anything you can eat. 

Cover crops not only help to power up your soil after a long growing season, but they actually help to improve your soil and stop weeds as well. The best part: You won’t even need to till them in.

They grow quickly, are easy to maintain, and are just what your soil needs. Read on to find out exactly why.

An image of clover and rye growing in the garden.
You can see both clover and rye here being used here as a cover crop. As long as you don’t let the crops come to seed, they will help snuff out the weeds, keep the soil loosened, and add nutrients back into the soil.

Why Use A Cover Crop?

There are many reasons why you would want to use a fall cover crop. To begin with, they help to protect your garden soil from erosion during the harsh winter months. When left as bare ground, the soil is susceptible to wind, rain, snow, and the freezing and thawing of moisture. 

In addition, a cover crop helps to keep weeds at bay. The lack of bare ground prevents blowing seeds from landing and germinating. The seeds simply don’t have a chance to penetrate the soil due to the cover crop being there already. 

Cover crops also help to loosen soil due to their growing roots. The roots help to break apart and naturally aerate your soil. This also helps to make the need of tilling in the spring obsolete and allows you to implement a no-till garden (check out this great article on setting up a no-till raised row garden in the spring ). 

The best reason to use a cover crop, however, is that they help to add nutrients back into the depleted soil. All of those vegetables and flowers you grew all spring and summer long really take a toll on your soil, so there needs to be a way to add nutrients back into it. A cover crop does just that: It re-energizes and adds fertility back into your soil.   

Varieties of Cover Crops – How To Grow A Fall Cover Crop

There are three main types of cover crops that you might want to consider. 

  1. Grains – These include crops such as annual grasses, rye, barley, oats, and wheat. Grains help to snuff out weeds and also create a ton of organic matter that will help to enrich the soil. Their extensive root system also helps to break apart hard soils like clay. 
  2. Legumes – This type includes crops like red clover, field peas, soybeans, and hairy vetch. Legumes are considered nitrogen-fixers that help to add nutrients and nitrogen back into the soil. 
  3. Broadleaves – Buckwheat, alyssum, and mustard are all examples of this type of cover crop. They are mostly used to help shade out weeds because they can be easily tilled into the soil for added nutrients. 
A rake is turning over the newly sowed seeds.
Once your seeds have been either cast out onto the soil either by hand or a spreader, lightly rake them in. You don’t need to completely cover the seeds with soil.

How To Plant, Grow, And Maintain A Fall Cover Crop

Planting Cover Crops

Almost all types of cover crops should be planted around a month before your location’s expected first fall frost date. This allows the plants to become established before the harsh cold of winter sets in. (You can find your First Fall Frost Date Here.) 

Pull all of your dead plants and vegetables from your summer garden and compost. You are left with a blank slate of bare soil. Simply rake your soil to help loosen the first couple of inches. There’s no need for tilling. 

You can then spread the seeds by hand or broadcast them with a spreader. Both applications work just fine. Scatter the seeds much like you would grass seeds. Aim for around ½ to 1 pound of crop per 40 square feet of garden space. Make sure to check your cover crop instructions though as the measurements might vary slightly. 

Lightly rake the soil to help set the seeds for germination. Raking also helps prevent birds from eating the seeds. There is no need to completely cover the seeds with soil, however. You may choose to cover very lightly with straw or another type of lightweight mulch (½ inch of mulch is sufficient). 

Lightly water and keep moist until germination takes place. The time will depend on which crop you choose. Rye, for example, will take as little as 7 to 10 days before you start to see sprouting.

A closeup image of rye seeds. How to grow a fall cover crop
Do not let your cover crops come to seed like shown here! These seeds will eventually fall to the ground and end up being unwanted seeds for your spring plants. Simply keep the cover crops short by mowing before the seeds appear.

Long-Term Care – How To Grow and Maintain a Fall Cover Crop 

Fall & Winter Care

Little to no work is needed during the late fall and winter months. The crops will eventually become dormant over the colder months and little growth will take place. 

The main key is to make sure that you don’t allow the crop to come to seed at any point if the temperatures are warmer and growth does occur. Allowing the seeds to grow will cause unwanted germination. Your once helpful cover crop would then become weeds for your spring crops, and you don’t want that! 

To help avoid this issue, just mow off your cover crop if it becomes too tall or before seeding occurs. 

mustard seeds growing in rows with bare soil in-between. grow a fall cover crop
Mustard seeds are shown here just starting to germinate. To really get the benefits of a cover crop though, make sure to plant the crop over the entire barren soil. Unwanted weeds will appear where the mustard is not growing.
Spring Care

Once the warmer weather hits, your cover crop will start to grow. Again, make sure not to allow it to come to seed by keeping it trimmed.

About 2 to 4 weeks before you wish to plant your spring crops, you should decide what to do with your cover crop. You have two main options: Turning it into the soil or let it die off and planting through it. 

All of the plant material and roots get mixed into the soil when you turn the cover crop. Simply use a shovel or a tiller. 

The no-till option is a preferred method and also takes the least amount of work. Simply mow the crop really short and allow it to die off. You will then be able to easily plant through the dead foliage. 

Either way allows the organic material to break down and become part of the soil. It’s a win-win no matter which method you choose. 

To Conclude…

Adding a fall cover crop to your gardening plans is a great and easy way to boost your soil’s nutrients, help the soil’s structure improve, reduce unwanted weeds, and add organic matter back into your soil. Your spring soil is now primed and ready to go with little to no work involved! 

Feel free to print out or save our Fall Cover Crop At-A-Glance sheet. It is sized for half letter printing but can be scaled if needed.