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No-till cover crop

Buckwheat seedlingI'm searching for a cover crop that:

  • is reliably winter-killed in zone 6 (meaning that I don't have to till it in or pull it out)
  • is non-leguminous (so that I'll get lots of organic matter rather than lots of nitrogen)
  • will survive in our problem spots --- dense, clayey soil with a high water table

So far, buckwheat and oats seem to be my top contenders.  I've been slipping buckwheat into gaps in my rotation this month, beds where spring crops have been pulled out with nothing to take their place for at least six weeks.  Next month, I'll plant oats in empty beds.

If all goes as planned, our cover crops will turn into a heavy mulch that will partially or entirely decompose in time for spring planting.  It's even possible that the buckwheat will die in five or six weeks when I mow it down at bloom time, allowing me to plant garlic under the green manure a few weeks later.

Do you have a favorite no-till cover crop?  I'm open to any and all suggestions since this year is our first trial.

Beat the summer heat with a homemade chicken waterer.


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Barley. Red clover.
Comment by Errol Tue Jul 6 08:33:05 2010
Neither of those fit the bill. Red clover is a perennial, so I'd have to yank it out or till it under. Barley is an annual, but it doesn't winter kill, so I'd once again have to yank it out or till it in. I'm looking for something that'll work well with a no-till system.
Comment by anna Tue Jul 6 09:41:29 2010
We grew buckwheat this year and I didn't feel like it gave us a huge amount of organic matter. Of course, we were growing it a little off season in very clay heavy soil, so that could have been why. It decomposed really quickly, though, and it did do a good job preventing erosion in the mounded beds.
Comment by megan Tue Jul 6 12:37:11 2010
That's exactly what I'm afraid of --- buckwheat and clay aren't supposed to mix well. What cover crops have you had good luck with on clay?
Comment by anna Tue Jul 6 13:45:07 2010
Why not look around for annuals that already grow around where you live?
Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jul 6 16:13:39 2010
In conventional agriculture, "no-till" means that you swamp the field with herbicides to kill weeds at intervals, which is clearly not the route I'm using. In that type of no-till, it wouldn't really matter how and when your cover crop dies back, because you'd just kill it when you want to. Conventional non-no-till farmers just till in the cover crop, so again it doesn't matter when they die back. I actually haven't run across anyone using cover crops the way I want to, or I would certainly steal their ideas!
Comment by anna Tue Jul 6 16:17:56 2010
I like oats.About 90 percent of it winter kills.I use it in my main garden.The thick mat helps prevent soil run off and slows weed growth.I garden in zone 5B
Comment by Rein Tue Jul 6 21:50:13 2010
Only 90% winterkilled? Drat! Maybe I can figure out a way to help it along to get to 100%.
Comment by anna Wed Jul 7 07:44:12 2010

I've been reading this post and realized I'm in need of the same thing. I came across this table of non-leguminous, non hardy (WK means winter-kill), cover crops in a Rodale Institute article. I hope this HTML table turns out to be readable. Besides buckwheat there are four other possibilities you may not have heard of.

Buckwheat Comments: Short life cycle, residues decay rapidly; can become weed by reseeding.

Sorghum-sudan hybrid Comments: Mow at 3-4 ft to promote deep rooting allelopathy may inhibit some crops

Foxtail millet(6) Comments: Fast growing, drought tolerant, no hard seed, thus low potential to become weed

Pearl millet(6) Comments: Hard to mow-kill, very tall

Japanese millet(6) Comments: Quick maturing (45 days)

More info here. The table would not paste in legibly so some important info is at the bottom of this link that is not above. http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0104/no-till/chart.shtml

Comment by Alyosha Tue May 10 21:45:37 2011

Thanks so much for that extra information! You might also be interested in reading the cover crop section of our blog. Since making this post, we've put in a year of experimentation and have decided that:

*Buckwheat doesn't like our clay soil and doesn't make much biomass for us, but does reliably mow kill and rot in quickly. An okay quick summer cover crop.

*Oats love our soil and died quite well over the winter, producing a heavy mulch. Perfect fall cover crop! However, in the spring, I had to resort to hand-weeding them --- not so good there.

*Oilseed radishes had amazing weed-suppressing properties and also winter-killed reliably when planted in the fall. Another great cover crop.

And then there are the ones I won't be trying again, but I won't list them all here... :-)

Comment by anna Wed May 11 06:53:53 2011

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime