The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

No-till, winter cover crops

Oat cover cropBy now, parts of your summer garden are probably toast.  That early sweet corn should be long gone, maybe you pulled out some buggy beans, and you're about to dig your potatoes.  Or perhaps you have trouble zones where the soil wasn't good enough to support much of a crop and you're thinking about writing that bed off entirely.  Once you set aside some good ground for your fall garden, now's the perfect time to plant the rest in winter cover crops --- they'll create organic matter, prevent erosion, cut down on winter weed growth, and add beauty to the winter garden.

Winter-killed oilseed radish

Young oatsThe perfect winter cover crop for a no-till garden can handle problematic soil conditions, will thrive in the fall and early winter, then naturally dies back when the coldest part of winter hits.  Here in zone 6, I've found only two winners that really fit the bill --- oats and oilseed radishes.  Oats have the advantage that they are available at my local feed store (which means the seeds are dirt cheap) and the plants leave behind a light mulch that will protect the soil until it's time to plant summer vegetables.  Oilseed radishes hold their own, though, by aerating and adding organic matter deep in poor soil, then rotting fast enough that I can plant spring vegetables directly behind them.  After a year of experimentation, I've decided that oilseed radishes will go into the very poorest soil of my garden while oats will be planted almost everywhere else.

Oilseed radish seedlingsSo, when do you plant winter cover crops?  Again, this will be climate specific, but I plant oats betwen August 1 and September 15 and oilseed radishes between August 1 and September 7.  If you plant too late, your cover crops won't do much good and you'll instead enter the next garden year with lots of weeds.  On the other hand, plant too early and your cover crops might go to seed and produce weed problems of their own (although you can stave this off with oats by mowing the mature plants.)

Unless you have fancy equipment to do the work for you, cover crops aren't worth the extra effort of seeding in rows.  Instead, I've had good luck broadcasting oat seeds on the soil surface and covering them with a very light mulch of straw to keep the ground moist Light straw mulchwhile preventing seed predation by our intelligent sparrows and cardinals.  Radish seeds are less tasty, so I often toss them directly onto the soil surface with no further care.  (Do be aware that in really hot, dry weather, the radish seedlings can burn to a crisp if planted this way.)  A safer (but more time-consuming method) for planting both is to rake back the top half inch of soil, broadcast your seeds, and pull the soil back overtop.

There are several winter cover crops that can be planted later than September 15, but I've found that barley, crimson clover, and (especially) annual ryegrass are tough to kill without tilling.  I suspect that any cover crop that can be planted within a month of the first frost date will be too cold hardy to die on its own over the winter.  For beginners who live in zone 6 or colder, I'd recommend sticking to oats and oilseed radishes this year for a beautiful and bountiful winter cover crop.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Where have you found to be the best place to purchase radish seed to be used as a cover crop from?



Comment by Kevin Mon Aug 8 11:44:09 2011

Oilseed radishes are pretty popular right now, so it can be tough to find a source at this time of year. There are also a lot of named varieties that are especially suitable for drilling through hardpan --- look for tillage radishes or groundhog radishes if you need that kind of help (and expect them to be sold out.)

But if you just want oilseed radishes for aerating heavy clay or something similar and can't find them at your local feed store, you can go to my source --- Johnny's Selected Seeds. Expect to pay a whopping $7.55 per pound (which drops to about $3 per pound if you buy a 50 pound bag), drastically more than the quarter a pound I paid for my oat seeds. That's why the oats are my primary winter cover crop!

Comment by anna Mon Aug 8 14:21:11 2011

Anna, Can you sow a few and save seeds for next ear? That is a pretty expensive cover crop for sure. What are your thoughts on buckwheat? I threw some out in am empty bed mainly be ause I didnt have anything else, but it is supposed to have some good cover crop qualities...

Comment by Deb Thu Sep 27 15:59:17 2012

Deb --- I'd need to sow the oilseed radishes in the spring for seed saving since they winter-kill. But I want to give it a try --- the seeds are expensive.

We like buckwheat in the summer a lot. It fits into month-long gaps perfectly, and really does produce a lot of biomass (as long as your soil is already moderately okay --- it doesn't thrive in poor soil amid weeds.)

Comment by anna Thu Sep 27 20:12:54 2012

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