Cover Crops: Try Winter Rye!
Have you considered fall cover crops and been overwhelmed by the possibilities? Does it seem just too complicated, too many choices? My choice is winter rye—the grain, not annual rye grass—which has been my fall/winter cover crop for 40 years in different types of gardens and soils.
Why Winter Rye?
Here are my top reasons:
- I can plant it any time after I clear my summer garden beds through mid-November.
- It grows all winter—it may not show much top growth, but any time the ground isn’t frozen, roots are growing.
- It has a deep, fibrous root system to pull up nutrients from the lower soil profile, preserve nitrogen in the topsoil layer, and improve tilth of heavy clay soils.
- It’s a beautiful green carpet during the browns of winter, but it is an annual that dies after setting seed in spring, facilitating management in no-till gardens.
- Rye is somewhat allelopathic—it produces chemicals that interfere with other plant seeds germinating and growing—which helps with early spring weed control.
How do you plant a good stand of winter rye? Buy rye seed at local garden centers or order on-line. Use 8 to 10 ounces of rye per 100 square feet of garden space. If you till or turn your beds over in the fall, you can broadcast and rake in the rye. If you don’t till, you can rake off the coarse mulch and leave fine mulch—such as compost—then broadcast the rye and rake it in. Either way, plant 1 to 2 inches deep.
You should see shoots emerge in 7 to 14 days depending on temperature. The top growth will increase as temperatures warm and day length increases.
How do you deal with rye come planting season?
If you plan to till or turn over your beds before spring planting, cut the rye when it’s about 12 inches tall using a hedge trimmer, string trimmer, or even a lawn mower if your beds allow. You can turn the cut rye into the soil immediately if it’s not too wet. If you don’t turn the rye under, it will regrow, and you can keep cutting until the soil is dry enough to work.
If you do let the rye get tall and even set seed, you can still cut the stalks and either turn them under or keep them for mulch.
If you don’t till or turn your soil, let the rye start to flower, then cut it as low as possible with a hedge shear or string trimmer. Save the cut stalks for mulch.
Planting Spring or Summer crops
You can plant directly into the turned, tilled, or rye-stubbled bed, among the cut rye plants. This works especially well with summer transplants, such as tomatoes and peppers. It’s probably best to wait 2-3 weeks before planting seeds to let any allelopathy subside.
Rye is a great addition to your winter garden. It will improve your soil and provide a vibrant green antidote to the browns of winter.
Give it a try this year!
Article by John Bowen Buncombe County Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer
For more information:
NCSU – Winter Annual Cover Crops
UVM Fact Sheet – Winter Rye: A Reliable Cover Crop
MSU – Use Rye This Fall to Put Your Garden to Bed for Winter
UMass – Cover Crop Growing Tips
UFL – Allelopathy: How Plants Suppress Other Plants