Fall Cover Crops -- Simple and Useful
It is almost time to plant your fall cover crops. Those who have adopted this simple practice know that it is as essential as adding fertilizer. It is easy to do, and for a few dollars worth of seed most can do their whole garden. For Master Gardeners in Washington County, AR, see me at September MG meeting for oats and Austrian winter pea seed in small packets.
Cover crops are grown to provide soil protection and improvement. In the process, they serve to; add organic mater and nutrients, improve tilth, reduce erosion, improve crop vigor, and control weeds. Cover crops are the backbone of any annual cropping system that seeks to be sustainable.
Cover Crops To Use for the Fall. There are many choices on what to use. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply lists 52 cover crops, each with a slightly different characteristics. I have settled on two cover crops for the fall -- Oats and Austrian Winter Peas. Both do well in the area. They can be planted together, but they have different purposes, so I suggest using one or the other. See November photo above -- peas on left, oats on right.
If you have a healthy soil (i.e. have not used a lot of chemicals), you will likely have Rhizobia bacteria present in the soil. This is required for the bacteria to fix nitrogen on the pea roots. If not, add a Rhizobia inoculant.
Caution: If you wait and plant oats too late in the fall, you will not get a good stand, and plants will be weak in the spring. Plant peas by September 15 for best results.
Oats also grows rapidly and covers the soil quickly. It does not fix nitrogen, but it is good for extracting phosphorus from the soil and making it available for the subsequent crops. It makes a heavy cover, shades out winter weeds, looks attractive, and generally dies back completely with very hard freezes (below 20 degrees). It is the choice cover crop for garden beds where spring crops are to be grown.
Early to mid September is a good time to plant oats. You want the plants to grow two feet or more, but not go to seed. Normally, by end of February the plants will have died, and the root systems will be partially decomposed. It takes very little effort to remove the oats cover in the spring. The stems and leaves can be used as mulch. Caution: Oats planted in October will stay green longer in the winter and may not die back in the spring.
Seeding rates: For oats, 1 pound per 1,000 square feet. For the Peas, 2 pounds per 1000 square feet.