Winter Cover Crops
by Lynn Byczinkski, for Johnny's Selected Seeds

Winter — Good Time to Build Soils

Winter is a good time to be working on soil improvement, and you don't have to go out in cold weather to do it. By planting a cover crop in summer or fall and letting it overwinter, you can improve soil organic matter and soil fertility, suppress cool-season weeds, prevent soil erosion, and create a better seedbed for spring planting.

Winter Rye
Winter Rye
Hardiest winter cover crop to stem erosion and build soil

The best winter cover crops differ from region to region, by growing zone and the crop's winter hardiness, but from a management perspective there are basically two types:

  • Winter-killed: Crops that are killed by cold, but have sufficient biomass to protect the soil.
  • Winter-hardy: Crops that remain alive through winter and resume growth in spring.

Winter-killed Cover Crops

Oats are an example of the first type. Sown in summer, they will put on a lot of growth, and often maintain active growth into early November, dying slowly after several hard frosts. The winter-killed mulch and root mass will hold the soil in place, however, until the following spring.

Other plants that may be grown for winter-killed mulch include field pea , oilseed radish , and rapeseed .

The disadvantage to this type of cover crop is that you have to clear the land and plant the cover crop early enough to get significant amounts of biomass to hold the soil over the winter. That could mean cover-cropping only on ground that grew spring vegetables, or it could require undersowing the cover crop in a summer crop such as corn. The big advantages of a winter-killed cover crop is that the mulch is easy to till under in spring, and the land can be planted right away.

Winter-hardy Cover Crops

The second type, cover crops that live through winter or that go dormant and renew growth in late winter, can usually be planted after summer vegetable crops. They will grow in fall and establish root systems that protect the soil over winter.

Fall Green Manure Mix
Fall Green Manure Mix
Depending upon growing zone, the peas, clover, and ryegrass are winterkilled, while the rye and hairy vetch regrow in spring.

Some examples of crops that will survive winter (depending on winter low temperatures) include winter rye , winter wheat, hairy vetch , Austrian winter peas, and crimson clover . Winter rye and hairy vetch are recommended for the northern United States.

In regions where these crops survive winter, they will grow vigorously in early spring. They will need to be mowed close to the ground, to stop growth, and then incorporated into the soil. Because decomposition of the cover crop debris will tie up nitrogen, it's a good idea to wait two or three weeks before planting.

Mixed Winter-hardy & Winter-killed Cover Crops

Many growers use a mixture of cover crops from the two categories. Johnny's Fall Green Manure Mix is a blend of winter rye, field peas, ryegrass, crimson clover, and hairy vetch. The peas, clover, and ryegrass are winter-killed. The rye and hairy vetch regrow in spring.

Winter Forage

If deer are numerous in your area, take note that they seem to like winter rye over most all winter cover crops. You may want to consider sowing a mixture of medium red clover and oats, as the deer do not like oats as much. Another practice would be to sow forage turnip around the perimeter of the field to satisfy the deer's hunger. Sown by mid-August, turnips will generally grow slowly until temperatures fall below 20°F/-6.6°C. While turnip bulbs remain grazeable even after freezing, they begin to deteriorate soon after a thaw.

About the Author
Lynn Byczinski

Lynn Byczynski

was growing organic vegetables and cut flowers for market when she decided to create a magazine that would help market gardeners nationwide share experiences and information. Her first issue of Growing for Market appeared in January 1992, and it has been published continuously since then. GFM is renowned in the market gardening world for realistic articles that give growers practical, how-to information about growing and selling produce and flowers. Lynn, her husband Dan Nagengast, and their two children have grown vegetables and cut flowers since 1988, selling through a CSA, at farmers' markets, to chefs, grocery stores, and florists. They currently grow cut flowers and hoophouse tomatoes on about 2 acres of their 20-acre farm near Lawrence, Kansas. Lynn is also the author/editor of several books about market farming, including The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising & Selling Cut Flowers The Hoophouse Handbook