Growing Cover Crops

Gardening teaches patience. At least waiting for seeds to sprout does. Two weeks ago I planted about 45 pounds of cover crop seeds, and the past few days have finally shown bits of green emerging from the dirt.

cover crop of cayuse white oats or merced rye emerge from the tilled ground

We are counting on cover crops to make our horrible hard and nutrient lacking soil useable. Cover crops, also known as green manure, are plants from the legume and grass family which are planted for the sole purpose of improving soil. Planted in the fall, they are then cut down and dug back into the ground in the spring before they flower. They are one of the cornerstones of sustainable agriculture, and are a low cost, easy to maintain, and an earth friendly way of creating a healthy garden.

Different plants serve different purposes, such as adding nitrogen to the soil, weed competition, and erosion control. The issues that I needed to address on my land were breaking up hard soil, adding nitrogen, and increasing organic matter (I have yet to see one worm in the 6 month’s I’ve been digging). Since we have been told that our yard floods in heavy rains, crops that tolerate poor drainage are also a plus. Places that sell cover crops often have an all-purpose “soil building mix” which contains a pre-mixed assortment of seeds, but I chose to create my own blend.

Using this insanely helpful chart from Peaceful Valley, I chose seeds for the features that best suited the needs of my soil. Many do the same functions, but I chose a variety, in case one type failed. Both Austrian Winter Peas and Bell Beans (the non-culinary variety of Fava Beans) will fix nitrogen, add organic matter, and loosen heavy soils. Purple and Common Vetch will fix nitrogen, add organic matter, loosen heavy soil. I chose Cayuse White Oats to add organic matter, compete with weeds, and loosen heavy soil. Merced Rye will do the same, plus is tolerate of poor drainage. Lastly, Persian Clover will do it all!

Some of my seeds I purchased from Peaceful Valley while they were on sale, and some I got from my local well-stocked nursery, Harmony Farm Supply.

Unfortunately, cover crops aren’t magic, and they do have to be sown in the ground. Because the ground is so hard, I wouldn’t have been able to rack soil over them after planting, so my great husband tilled the dirt first. Matt spend the majority of one Saturday day behind a beast of a rented rototiller, and tilled up the back half acre.


Our plan is to have fruit trees along the North and East side of the property, with planting beds in the middle. Eventually the West side of the lot will be a shed and hedgerows. Our focus right now is getting the East side of the lot and the middle useable. I then staked out areas we hope to plant in, and scattered a bit of compost on the ground to give something for the seeds to get started in.

Before planting, seeds from the legume family should be inoculated, which is a species specific bacteria. This inoculant enhances the nitrogen fixation properties of the plant, allowing them to pull the unusable nitrogen from the air and “fix” it into the soil. When the plant is cut down or tilled under, the roots decompose and the nitrogen stays were the roots were, providing nutrients to other plants. To inoculate, you purchase bags of the bacteria wherever you purchased your seeds from. Mix the inoculate, which is in the form of a powder that looks like rich soil, with a bit of water, then evenly coat the seeds. Mix all your seeds together, and you’re ready to go!

preparing for planting


ready for planting

I planted my seeds by broadcast sowing, or just throwing handfuls out into my prepared planting areas. Ideally, they should be distributed in a nice, even layer. There is a lost art to this for sure, and I haven’t developed it, because sections of my field certainly got planted thicker than others. I then raked over the seeds to turn them under the soil. Because my clover seeds are so tiny, I tossed them directly onto the surface and then used a piece of plywood to step on to tamp the seeds into the soil.

itty bitty clover seeds
itty bitty seeds of Nitro Persian Clover

In a perfect world, cover crop seeds would be planted 6-8 weeks before the first frost, and when the rains start so you don’t have to irrigate. I planted a bit on the late side, about 5 weeks before our anticipated first frost date (November 5), but it has yet to rain. There is no rain on the forecast. Which means I’ve been watering the cover crops, and because we have yet to get the well working, each time we turn on the hose I dread to see this month’s water bill. To conserve as much water as possible, and to keep the seeds moist to maximize germination, we mulched the seeded areas with alfalfa. While more expensive, it will break down faster and adds more nitrogen than straw does. It also makes our yard smell amazing.

The past two weeks of daily water and begging the earth to sprout the seeds has finally come to fruition. Each day I go outside there are more and more bits of green emerging. There are still sections of the yard that aren’t seeded, the sections that we don’t have a plan for yet. I can’t water a full half acre, so depending on when a forecast for rain comes, may or may not get seeded. But for now, the sections that we hope to plant in come next season, we are on track to build up and heal the soil! I can’t wait until I come out one morning and all I see is a field of green!




A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust. — Gertrude Jekyll