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

When to plant winter cover crops

Oat cover cropLast year, my cover crop experiments helped me determine the best species for our garden, so this year I'm just fine-tuning the process.  One factor I wanted to figure out was the optimal planting time for my winter cover crops.

I filled up garden beds with oats and oilseed radishes whenever they became available between July 20 and September 15.  The photo to the left shows two beds of oats, the one in front planted August 31 and the one in back planted August 10.  This may not always be the case, but with this year's extended autumn weather, August 10 was just too early to plant oats if I don't want them to go to seed, while August 31 allowed for a lot of vegetative growth without promoting flowering.

On the other hand, planting just two weeks later, on September 15, seemed to be a bit too late for optimal oat growth.  The oats came up, but didn't get a chance to grow big enough to completely cover the soil and do their job of erosion and weed prevention.  September 9 is the latest planting that I felt grew sufficiently.

Oilseed radishes

Oilseed radishes had a simpler planting request --- the earlier the better.  Beds planted August 2 grew hefty radishes like the one shown in the foreground while beds planted a month later (in the background on the right) look a bit puny.

It sounds like I should plant my cover crops in waves next year --- buckwheat from the last frost until the beginning of August, oilseed radishes until the middle of August, then oats from late August through early September.  Your region will probably have a slightly different planting schedule, but chances are the same trend will apply.

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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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So I guess that I'm too late to start planting cover crops? hehe

But seriously, the frost will kill off the oats? How do you handle them? I guess you compost the bio-mass that they build up. But what about the root system? Are they pulled up, tilled in, etc?

As for the oilseed radishes, I know they winter kill. But does that kill take out the tap root? I would think that any tap root would be a pain to deal with in the garden. And I see that it is supposed to be rotated since it is in the mustard family. Do you have a cover crop rotation schedule like you do for the "real" crops?

Comment by Fritz Fri Nov 18 09:43:19 2011

stions! I choose cover crops that winterkill specifically so I don't have to pull them up, till them in, etc.

Oilseed radishes work well with early spring plantings since they completely deteriorate and leave nearly bare soil by March or so here in zone 6. The taproot, surprisingly, completely melts into the soil. (Maybe I just have a lot of worms? More likely, it's just that the taproot is very succulent.)

I try to plant oats where I'll be either transplanting early (broccoli, for example) or direct-seeding after the frost free date in May. By then, the oats have formed a mulch about half as thick as I usually apply when I add straw to the garden and the roots have been eaten up by soil microorganisms. So I just transplant directly into the mulch or rake it back to mulch the bed edges while I scatter seeds on the bare soil.

All winter cover crops don't behave so nicely --- that's why I settled on oats and oilseed radishes. If you live further south, you might not get as good winterkill with even these, but further north you'll have more choices.

I haven't really bothered rotating with my cover crops, but I will if I see a problem. I tend to get a somewhat natural rotation since I've been focusing my oilseed radishes in the back garden, which needs a lot of soil improvement, and I don't plant crucifer crops there because they can't handle the poor soil. In a vegetable garden, oats only share the same family as corn, and they're so different I doubt you'd see much problem if you planted one directly after the other. Rotation is a factor to consider, though, if you have crucifer diseases that hang around in your soil.

Comment by anna Fri Nov 18 10:32:49 2011
I took my first shot at a cover crop this year- threw some oats down in early september on an ancient dirt pile of I spread out flat. They sprouted well, but never got more than 3in high. It is subsoil so no big surprise, but I'm hoping yearly compost added plus keeping a cover crops might help turn it into healthy soil and keep the johnson grass down in the mean time.
Comment by Phil Sat Nov 19 13:45:13 2011
Phil -- I can't remember if I know where you're located, but that sounds a lot like drought. We planted some oats in some terrible soil at about the same time you did and they're now about 18 inches tall, but we never seem to lack water... :-) You might try again next year and commit to watering the spot a bit if the cover crops seem to be stuck.
Comment by anna Sat Nov 19 17:00:27 2011
I'm in NE Oklahoma and we've had horrible drought conditions all year long. It has been better these last two months but I bet you are right!
Comment by Phil Sun Nov 20 19:40:42 2011
Hopefully your drought will break soon and next year you'll have better luck. Oats seem to be awfully resilient when faced with just about anything else.
Comment by anna Sun Nov 20 20:12:29 2011

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