Cover Crops To Recharge Your Soil This Winter!

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Cover crops (green manures) add nutrients to your soil

Cover crops, or green manures, are a great way to protect ground that would otherwise lie bare over winter. Dig them in and they’ll help to build up your soil’s organic matter – which is great news for the vegetables that follow! The end of summer is the perfect time to sow a cover crop for winter. Read on or watch our video to discover exactly how to do it.

Why Grow Cover Crops?

Cover crops are plants grown to protect or improve the ground for future crops. Keeping soil covered over winter protects it from erosion and helps support all the beneficial life associated with it. It also gives weeds less opportunity to establish, meaning cleaner beds for sowing or planting in spring. Dig the cover crop into the ground at the end of winter and it will rot down to add valuable organic matter, helping to feed the plants that follow.

Growing Rye as a winter cover crop
Cereal rye is unsurpassed among cover crops in its ability to hold onto soil nitrogen

Which Cover Crops to Grow

Heavy Soil

Cover crops with deep or fibrous roots such as cereal rye help to improve soil structure by breaking it up. Others, like mustard, grow very fast to produce lots of lush foliage that can be incorporated into the soil after just a few months to boost its organic content. Mustard is a particularly good cover crop for clay soil, where it can be dug in before winter so frosts have a chance to break the soil up. Prolific salads such as mache or corn salad may also be grown this way.

Poor Soil / Hungry Crops

Some cover crops directly add nutrients to the soil by fixing nitrogen at their roots. Examples include winter field beans and peas, clover and vetch. These are all types of legume and are a great choice for sowing before nitrogen-hungry brassicas such as cabbage.

Phacelia is very good at suppressing weeds and will improve your soil’s structure
Phacelia is very good at suppressing weeds and will improve your soil’s structure

Weed Suppression

Phacelia can be sown in late summer in milder areas – or wait until spring if winters are cold where you are. Phacelia is very good at suppressing weeds and will improve your soil’s structure. The flowers are stunning and a major draw for bees and hoverflies, so consider leaving a small patch to flower to attract them. Buckwheat is another good example, offering numerous benefits for weed suppression, soil enrichment, and as a source of nectar for beneficial insects in spring.

When should you plant your cover crops?

Check the planting times in our Garden Planner to pick the right cover crop sowing time for your area.

How to Sow a Cover Crop

To sow a cover crop, start by roughly digging the ground over. Remove all weeds, especially perennial ones. Tamp down the soil with the back of a rake then scatter, or broadcast, your seeds evenly across the soil surface. Don’t sow them too thickly. Rake the seeds into the soil, tamp down with the back of your rake, then water the ground if it’s dry.

The chunky seeds of winter field beans may also be sown in rows. Use a spade or hoe to dig out trenches about two inches (5cm) deep. Space the trenches eight inches (20cm) apart. Now sow them so they’re around four inches (10cm) apart then fill in the trenches to cover them.

Digging in cover crops adds essential nutrients to your soil
Digging in cover crops adds essential nutrients to your soil

Digging in a Cover Crop

In most cases it’s best to dig your cover crop into the soil before it begins to flower, perhaps leaving a few for early beneficial insects. At this stage the stems will still be soft, making them easier to cut up and dig in, and quicker to rot down. Incorporate the foliage into the soil or simply cut it off and leave it on the surface as a mulch for the worms to dig in for you, covering it over with cardboard if you’re concerned about weeds springing up. Cover crops should be dug in at least one month before sowing or planting so they have enough time to begin decomposing.

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Comments

 
"When can I plant a fall cover crop "
Gary Martin on Saturday 25 August 2018
"The second half of summer is the perfect time to plant a fall cover crop, so it has a month or two to establish before winter arrives."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 27 August 2018
"Thank you - i have been trying to find a video that not only explains how best to sow GM but also shows what the GM crops look like; you have achieved this! i have a dry, sandy soil and large beds, i have plenty of new perennials that are still in the sleep stage [ my first year ]. i was terrified as to what winter would bring to the bare patches as even ground cover plants such as phlox have not taken up the space in the beds as prolifically as i had hoped. my GM [ green manure ] of choice - given my soil - is lupines. but i would love to have a go at something i could actually eat. i have seen oats, broad beans and barley used as green manure. can these form a dual purpose - i.e feed me and the ground?"
lydia on Monday 22 July 2019
"Thank you - i have been trying to find a video that not only explains how best to sow GM but also shows what the GM crops look like; you have achieved this! i have a dry, sandy soil and large beds, i have plenty of new perennials that are still in the sleep stage [ my first year ]. i was terrified as to what winter would bring to the bare patches as even ground cover plants such as phlox have not taken up the space in the beds as prolifically as i had hoped. my GM [ green manure ] of choice - given my soil - is lupines. but i would love to have a go at something i could actually eat. i have seen oats, broad beans and barley used as green manure. can these form a dual purpose - i.e feed me and the ground?"
lydia on Tuesday 23 July 2019
"Hi Lydia. Generally the green manures you can eat - e.g. broad (or field) beans - need to be dug in before they get to the productive stage. This is partly timing - they would otherwise occupy the ground for too long when you might need the ground space for other plants - and also because they are easier to dig in and might be otherwise too tough and fibrous. So I'm afraid the answer is really no. The only possibly option is to sow a flush of mustard leaves, which would give leaves for picking and then you could dig that in. But I'd concentrate on selecting the best green manure for your soil and grow food elsewhere or after the green manure's done its job."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 24 July 2019
"Hello. I’ve just cleared my garlic plot and would like a recommended green manure. My follow on crops for this plot are sweet corn and potatoes Maighread Co Clare "
Maighread Hourihane on Friday 9 August 2019
"Hi Maighread. It depends on your soil and what you want to use the green manure for. The article details a few examples. Winter field beans are always a good one for overwintering - very hardy and would be dug in before you need to plant in April/May. It will help to improve soil fertility. Grazing rye is a good one for its deeper roots, which help to break up the soil and improve its structure."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 12 August 2019

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