Field of blooming mustard cover crop with trees in the background
Organic Gardening

Cover Crops: When to Plant, How to Plant and Mulch, and Where to Buy

This is the second part of a two part post series. In part 2: we’ll be covering the basics of cover crops and discussing when to plant, how to plant and mulch them, and where to buy. 

Field of mustard cover crops in bloom with trees in the background
Field of Mustard Cover Crop

Cover Crops for the Garden

Cover crops provide a way to reduce or completely eliminate the need to use synthetic fertilizers by adding organic material and minerals like nitrogen and phosphorus. They create a biodiverse environment for bacteria and fungi that attract beneficial insects, like earthworms. They’re a deterrence for weeds, pests, and diseases. You don’t need to have a big piece of land to benefit from cover crops either. You can use them in a small garden or even used them in raised beds.

This year, I will be trying out a couple of crops in our raised beds, our small side garden, the herb garden, and in other areas of our property that have hard ground.

If you haven’t read the first part of this series, check it out here!  In the first part, Learning the Basics About Cover Crops: What the Benefits are and How to Use them in the Garden, we discussed what we’ll be experimenting with this spring and fall, what cover crops are and how they can benefit your garden, what benefits they serve, and examples of what to use.  The second part of the series discusses when to plant cover crops, how to plant and mulch them, where to buy cover crops, and which ones you can also plant in the fall and winter.

When to Plant Cover Crops

When to plant cover crops depends on the variety you’re looking to plant. Before buying seeds, check to see what crops are best suited for your plant hardiness zones, determine your frost dates, and figure out what your goals are for your soil. Plant in either late summer or early fall after you’ve planted.

How to Plant and Mulch Cover Crops

How to plant a cover crop and how and when to mulch it will also depend on the type you choose. According to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, there are three different ways cover crops are planted:

  1. Plant an entire cover crop for an entire growing season.
  2. Plant the cover crop after you’ve harvested your garden. This would be ideal so that you can replenish the soil and start prepping the soil for next year’s growing season. After all, it does take some time for the nutrients and minerals to work into the soil.
  3. Growing your vegetables and fruits with your cover crops, or interseeding.

Mulching cover crops  should be done before they begin to flower. There are certain areas of our property though that I would like to keep the cover crops growing. This will allow an increase of pollinators as they bloom and grow alongside our herbs and flowers we have growing around the property.

There are a couple of ways to mulch cover crops. How you mulch depends on your preferences.

  1. Mow the cover crop. A quick and easy way to mulch the cover crop is by mowing it. Mowing will help speed up the process of breaking down/ compost the plant.
  2. Cut the plants by hand with scissors. Obviously this would not be recommended if you have a large garden. This is do-able in a small garden or raised beds.
  3. Tilling the cover crop into the soil.

What to Do Next After Cutting the Cover Crop

After cutting the cover crop, there are one of two things you can do next. The cover crop can be left to lay on the surface of soil like a mulch. By leaving the cover crop on top of the soil, it will protect it from washing away. A second option is to lightly mix/till the crop into the soil,

Where to Buy Cover Crops

There are a number of places where you can buy cover crops online. To my knowledge, at least from what I’ve seen in my area, big box stores don’t carry cover crops. I haven’t seen them sold at our local garden nursery either. That may differ in your area though. There are three different seed sellers that I normally buy from, but only two sell cover crops:

  • Botanical Interests is a small company that sells 5 different varieties of cover crops – hairy vetch, common buckwheat, crimson clover, a combination of peas and oats, and fava beans.
  • Johnny’s Seeds  sells three different types of cover crops from small quantities (1 pound) up to larger quantities (50 pounds), depending on your needs and how much ground you need to cover. They sell a combination of peas and oats, a spring green manure mix (a mixture of field peas, oats, and hairy vetch), and a fall green manure mix (a mixture of winter rye, field peas, ryegrass, crimson clover, and hairy vetch).

There is a third seed company that I would eventually like to try, which is Territorial Seed Company. There are 28 different varieties that they sell from alfalfa to mixes like Organic SummerMax mix which combines 40% Buckwheat, 40% Soybeans, and 20% Viking 220 Sorghum Sudangrass.

Planting Cover Crops in Fall and Winter

Cover crops can be planted in the fall and the winter, but it will depend on the variety and your climate. A good starting point for varieties and when they can be planted is included in my post Learning the Basics About Cover Crops: What the Benefits are and How to Use them in the Garden.

What cover crops are you interested in trying in your garden this year?

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