Despite their name, it’s best to plant winter cover crops in late summer or early fall. Plan to plant winter cover in your garden 1 month before the first average frost. In areas where frost is uncommon, plant a cover crop after your fruit-yielding crops have ceased producing. In areas with cold winters, September is the typical planting time for winter cover crops. In regions with mild winters, October or November is the best time to plant cover crops.
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Can You Plant Cover Crops in Winter?
It’s a great idea to plant winter cover crops even if you’re not a farmer. A small vegetable garden will get a lot of benefits from cover crops. However, you’ll need to start planning your cover crop before winter arrives. Once your vegetable crops stop producing in late summer or fall, it’s a good time to sow the seeds of your winter plants.
- Winter cover crops are a great idea whether you’re a farmer or backyard gardener.
- Plant cover crops at least 4 weeks before the average first fall frost.
- Some winter crops do best when planted in late summer, as many as 8 weeks before the first frost.
Don’t wait until winter to plant cover crops. Frozen, cold soil will prevent the seeds you spread from rooting. Remember, cover crops should be planted at least 4 weeks before the first average frost in your region. Some gardeners plant much earlier, as many as 6–8 weeks before the first average fall frost.
What are the Benefits of Winter Cover Crops?
Cover crops are planted not so they can be harvested. Instead, they’re intended to improve the soil they’re planted in. This in turn leads to better production from your spring and summer crops. Some cover crops are nitrogen– or phosphorus-fixing plants that bring nutrients to the soil. Others add organic matter, like natural compost.
- Add nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil.
- Add organic matter to the soil.
- Prevent erosion.
- Keep soil moist.
- Prevent soil compaction.
- Stop weed growth.
- Support pollinating species.
Planting cover crops prevents soil from eroding during winter rains. A few varieties of cover crops develop extremely deep taproots that actively prevent soil compaction. This makes rooting easier for future crops. A cover crop growing in your garden will also stop weeds from invading. In addition, pollinating species, such as bees, will feed on the flowers of your cover crop, so you’ll have more pollinators around in spring.
What Cover Crops Should You Plant for Winter? [Top 7 Crops]
Whether your goal is over soil health, preserving the soil structure, or feeding pollinators, there’s an ideal cover crop for your goals. Below are the best crops for you to plant this fall in order to improve your garden.
Crimson clover is an ideal winter cover crop. It requires very little maintenance in order to flourish. In addition, because it is a member of the pea family it is a “nitrogen-fixer” that adds nitrogen to the soil. This excess nitrogen then boosts the growth of the spring and summer vegetables you plant.
Best Varieties: Crimson clover, white clover (in areas with mild winters only).
Benefit: Increases the level of available nitrogen in the soil.
In addition to clover, there are several other nitrogen-fixing plants in the legume family. Some of our favorites are Austrian winter peas and fava beans. These tall plants help to prevent winter weed takeovers in your garden at the same time they improve soil quality. Plus, they make excellent natural compost when they’re tilled into the soil in spring.
Best Varieties: Austrian winter peas, fava beans, bell beans, field peas.
Benefit: Boost nitrogen content in the soil, choke out winter weeds.
Simple grasses and grains make excellent cover crops. They return organic matter to the soil, acting as natural compost. Varieties like oats are hardy enough to continue growing in temperatures down to 15℉ (-9℃), so they won’t die during the first cold snap. Annual ryegrass and winter rye are great options but may attract hungry deer to your yard. So, we recommend a mix of oats and field peas. This mix will enrich your soil with nitrogen and organic matter but won’t attract many deer.
Best Varieties: Oats, annual ryegrass, winter rye.
Benefit: Enriches the soil with organic matter.
Buckwheat is a valuable cover crop because it increases phosphorus levels in the soil. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient that allows garden vegetables to develop strong roots and stems. By planting buckwheat in the fall, you’ll ensure your vegetable garden thrives next spring.
Best Varieties: All buckwheat varieties.
Benefit: Raises the levels of plant-available phosphorus in the soil.
Winter-grown varieties of mustard are a beloved cover crop because of their deep roots. Plants in the mustard genus (brassica) develop deep taproots that naturally decompact soil. This improves soil drainage and allows future crops to root well. As an added advantage, some varieties of winter mustard help control harmful soil nematodes.
Best Varieties: White Mustard
Benefit: Improves soil compaction and drainage.
If you’d like to feed bees and other pollinators during fall and winter, plant this winter variety of phacelia. The blooms will feed pollinators in the fall, while the plant itself will return organic matter to the soil when extreme cold kills it off.
Best Varieties: Lacy Phacelia
Benefit: Supports pollinators, adds organic material to the soil.
Cover Crop Blends
A great way to get the most out of your winter crops is to purchase a blend of seeds. These winter cover crop blends combine several plants that grow well together and provide different benefits to the soil. By sowing your garden with a blend of cover crop seeds, you’ll reduce weeds, enrich your soil, and feed pollinators all at once.
Best Varieties: This cover crop blend is excellent for a backyard garden.
Benefit: Enriches soil, adds organic matter, chokes out weeds, and feeds pollinating species.
- High germination rate and open-pollinated cover crop mix.
- Premium quality seeds.
- Perfect for gardens in your backyard.
How Do You Prepare Soil for Winter Cover Crops?
To get your garden ready for a winter cover crop, first clear away your annual plants such as squash and tomatoes once they stop producing. Then, use a rake or tiller to till your garden soil to a depth of 4 inches (10 cm).
- Clear away old vegetation.
- Till soil to depth of 4 inches (10 cm).
- Spread seeds.
- Cover the seed with a rake.
With the soil prepared, it’s time to spread your cover crop seeds on the soil surface. Refer to the seed packaging for the proper amount of seeds per square foot. Cover the seeds by raking loose soil lightly over them. Then, moisten the soil with regular watering. This will cause your cover crop to sprout and take hold.
Do You Harvest Cover Crops?
Cover crops are not intended to be edible crops. Instead of a harvest, the main benefit of cover crops is that they protect and improve your soil. The vegetable plants in your garden bed will grow better if you have planted a cover crop the previous fall.
- Cover crops are not harvested for food.
- In spring, till cover crops into the soil to add organic matter.
- Cover crops improve soil quality to ensure better harvests from spring and summer vegetables.
Instead of harvesting your cover crops, till them into the soil in spring. This turns them into natural compost that boosts the nutrient content and population of helpful microbes in your soil. It’s worth the effort because your spring vegetables will thrive.
When Should You Start Winter Crops?
You should plant your winter crops in the fall, 4 weeks before the first fall frost. The best cover crops to plant are:
- Legumes, such as peas and beans
- Grasses and grains, like oats and winter rye
- White mustard
- Cover crop seed blends
All these types of cover crops grow well when planted in late summer or early fall, well in advance of the first frost. They’ll all work to improve your soil and keep weeds out of your garden.