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Knowledge to Grow by Karen Weiland - Cover Crops

Give your garden a reason to smile – plant a cover crop.

If you would like to increase the amount of organic matter in your garden soil, planting a cover crop would be a good beginning. A cover crop, also known as “green manure,” can be small grains, legumes or grasses and are usually planted in the fall.  Cover crops also prevent erosion, fix nitrogen into the soil, and aid in the reduction of the weed population (something I’m sure we all would like).

Fall planted cover crops should be sown right after the vegetables have been harvested.  They normally require four weeks of growing before cold weather sets in, at which time they will stop growing and go dormant.  Before planting a cover crop vegetable debris should be removed from the garden and the soil will need to be worked with a tiller to the depth of about six inches. Add some compost or some well-rotted manure at the rate of 20 pounds per 100 sq. ft. or you can also add a complete fertilizer such as 15-15-15 at the rate of one pound per 100 sq. ft. at the time of tillage.

Winter rye should be planted in the fall. It absorbs nitrogen and holds onto it until the rye is tilled under in the spring at which time the nitrogen is released to be absorbed by the garden plants. This should be applied at the rate of ¼ pound per 100 sq. ft. Winter rye and ryegrass have a thick growth habit and are therefore much more effective at shading out weeds than oats or small seeded legumes. If you cannot get your cover crop sown until October, it is recommended to use winter wheat or rye to be able to get it started and be effective.

A winter-hardy cover crop will resume its growth in the spring. If needed, keep it mowed so it does not go to seed and then till it under as soon as the soil can be worked. Cover crops need to be tilled under three to six weeks before planting vegetables. It is not recommended to plant seeds or vegetable plants in soils where the cover crop has just been turned.

During the summer, continuous crops of buckwheat can be planted where early vegetable crops have been harvested. Work the soil before broadcasting the buckwheat seed, which will germinate quickly and prevent any weeds from becoming King of the Garden. Buckwheat grows and flowers in only six weeks and needs to be tilled under before it goes to seed. It adds calcium, phosphorus and potassium to the soil and likes the heat of the summer. Buckwheat seed should be broadcast at the rate of about 1/6 pound per 100 sq. ft. It likes to be covered with a thin layer of soil.

As always, Happy Gardening!

The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange County.