Online Resources / :

Cover Crops in Spring

If you grew cover crops over the winter, things are probably starting to look lively in your garden plot. Winter rye, oats, and other grains are growing taller, legumes are sending out new shoots, and the clovers are preparing to bloom. So what’s a gardener to do next? Let’s discuss the options. 

Chop and drop the greens (no-till):

  • Perhaps the easiest way to process cover crops.
  • Works for tall grasses like rye, wheat and oats. Also great for legumes. 
  • Use sheers or a weed whacker to chop greens down to the soil surface.
  • Greens can be used as mulch on the soil surface, or composted in a heap. 
  • Roots of nitrogen-fixing plants (like clover, fava beans, and vetch) stay in the soil to slowly release nitrogen for the next crop. 

Chop the greens it into the soil (low-till):

  • Less labor intensive than full tilling and has less negative impact on soil biology. 
  • Easiest for smaller cover crops like clover or vetch, or young/tender grains.
  • Use a shovel or digging fork to chop up and tuck most of the greens into the soil. 
  • Leave roots in the ground to slowly release nitrogen to the next crop planting.
  • Cover the soil with burlap or row cover to expedite decomposition of greens and protect the soil from the elements.
  • Plant the bed when you no longer observe greens in the soil. 

Turn it over (till):

  • A conventional method that disturbs the soil and is a lot of hard work!
  • Works best for smaller, more delicate, cover crops like clover or vetch.
  • Use a shovel to dig up and turn over soil, submerging all the greens beneath the soil surface. 
  • Cover exposed soil with burlap or row cover to protect from the elements until greens have decomposed and the bed is ready to plant again. 

Cover crops are helpful for protecting and augmenting soil year round. Both grasses and legumes (like peas, clover and vetch) can be planted anytime throughout the growing season to help hold soil in place and offer nutrients to the soil microbes. 

  • Plant peas this spring to help fix nitrogen in the garden
  • Experiment with planting crimson clover under warm season crops to help hold water in the soil this summer. 
  • Plan to seed cover crops in the late summer to protect soil from the elements during the rainy seasons. 
  • Take note of which cover crops you enjoy or which ones perform well in your garden

About the Author

Alex Soleil (they/she) is a Garden Education Specialist at Tilth Alliance. They’ve been tending a plot and community projects at Picardo Farm P-Patch in NE Seattle for over a decade.