Tuesday, October 6, 2015

using cover crops to improve our garden’s soil

When we first moved to our current home we were SO excited.  So much more space, inside and out!  So many possibilities!  We set to work making our house a home, and outside—tilling a veggie garden and making new flowerbeds.  It wasn’t until the following summer that I noticed some plants in the vegetable garden just weren’t as robust as they should be and some were downright awful.  I decided it was just because of the weather that year and moved on.  This year, same story—different weather.  Hmmm. 

I realized it must be something else.  I knew from the get-go that we had very sandy soil with some very tough soil underneath.  I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but it appears it is.  It doesn’t seem to have a lot of organic matter in it, at least where the veggie garden is.  I decided to put as much compost as I could on the garden, but my compost heap, although big, can’t churn out enough compost fast enough to make much of a quick impact.  I really want our soil better for next year, not just 10 years from now!

Enter my friend the oat:


(Oats, not just for fiber anymore!)

This is just a bag of oats I got from our local feed co-op.  I think it cost $7.00 for 40lbs.  It may not look like much, but after planting it in the garden over areas that were already “done” (like our sweet corn patch), in a few weeks it looks like this:



And then this (the grassy looking stuff in the lower half of the picture):


Now, that is just oats.  They are not hardy here so they will die when we get a hard frost, but the crop residue they leave behind will be great organic matter when I till the garden next spring.

I later bought winter rye from the same co-op and I have planted some of that as well.  That IS hardy so it will freeze but then re-grow in the spring and will provide some quick nutrients for growing vegetables after I till it under in the spring.  Not to mention the roots will improve the soil structure (or so I have read). 

I will update in the spring on whether it made a noticeable difference to the soil or not—but already it is providing the benefit of keeping weeds out of the areas where I have planted it as it does grow quite thickly.  And it is nice to see lush green blades rather than dried out vegetable plants at this time of the year. 

If you want to do the same now is a great time for doing this!  If you are in a much warmer zone you may still be able to plant oats (I’m in zone 4 and I planted them a few weeks ago in early September) but winter rye will be perfect to plant right now if you are in a cooler area like I am.  All I did was rake the soil with a garden rake, seed by throwing handfuls of seed back and forth on the raked ground, and rake again.  If you water or get a rain right away you’ll see growth within 3-5 days or so, depending on how warm it is. 

There are lots of other cover crops out there (I really want to try oilseed radishes next year!) but I wanted to start with some that are easily accessible and cheap.  My dad, who is an organic farmer, uses a winter wheat/rye called Triticale every year. 

Let me know if you’ve had success with cover crops improving your soil! 


  1. I was going to plant a cover crop last year and never got around to it - this year we're doing garlic in all our raised beds and then getting someone to come in with a tractor to plow the land for the garden in the spring, but my mom's been doing no-till gardening for several years and LOVES it! Apparently tilling it kills a lot of the microorganisms in the soil? I've been reading a lot about deep mulching and find it fascinating!

    1. This is the first year I’ve gotten around to it myself, which is nothing short of a miracle--hah!

      I’ve heard the same…that tilling isn’t always the best for the soil. I would like to try no-tilling in the future but our garden is so big that I’m not sure we’d have enough leaves/compost to do that economically. Honestly I haven’t read a lot about it though so maybe I’m all wrong on what I would need to do. If you end up doing deep mulching I’d like to hear how it goes!


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