CO-Horts Blog

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cover Crops: They look cool and serve a purpose

Posted by: Alison O’Connor, horticulture agent, Larimer County Extension

As the weather cools, my thoughts turn to comfort food, good books, warm fires…and cover crops?  Ok, I never really gave planting a cover crop in my garden a second thought, until my poor veggies were smushed to smithereens in August from hail.  With my garden sitting fallow and sad…and the fact that I’ve never tilled, amended or fertilized my garden…I decided to plant a cover crop. 

What’s the purpose you ask?  Well, the Colorado Master Gardener site has an excellent publication that will answer your questions.  But essentially, I did it out of sheer curiosity and to do a good thing for my soil and plants next year (free nitrogen from the legumes!).  Lesson learned: planting a cover crop is really easy.  Easier than growing tomatoes, that's for sure.

So here’s what I did…enjoy the photographs!

Step 1. Buy your seed.  I happened to get mine from Johnny's,
but you can buy from your favorite seed company.  I bought
a mix of clover, annual and winter ryegrass, peas, oats and vetch. I bought
about 2.5 pounds of total seed for my 400 square foot garden.
Step 2. Upon opening your seed packets, promptly spill them
on the garage floor.  ARRGHHH! 
(You're impressed that I got a photo of this, aren't you?)
Step 3. Mix all the cover crop seed together in a clean container. 
This is only necessary if you bought your seed separately and not as a "cover crop mix."
Step 4. Make sure your beagle is handy to carefully watch and keep you on track. 
(That's Willow. She's my gardening buddy and has an affinity for tomatoes. )
Step 5. I had straw on my garden to help combat weeds,
so I worked in sections to rake it back.  You'll want to make sure you don't
walk too much on the garden during the seeding process, so divide it up if possible.
Step 6. Using my favorite garden tool (I call it the "scuffle hoe"),
I roughed up the soil surface.  This is also an excellent workout. 
It's whole body--abs, arms, back and legs!  Forget the P90X...just try gardening.
You don't have to scuff much...just enough to loosen the soil.
Step 7. Spread your seed!  Toss the seed in an even coat across
the soil surface.  It's not a science--just make sure you have
enough seed for the entire garden area.
Step 8. Using a steel-tine rake, gently spread the seed evenly across
the soil surface.  This also helps ensure soil-seed contact which will help
with germination. 
[The beagle who was watching is now being watched.]
Hazel (the one standing) was a puppy mill dog and tries to "mother" Willow. 
She does this all the time to protect her.  From what you ask? 
Well, we have really friendly rabbits and lots of sparrows.  It's a jungle out there!
Step 9. Back to the cover crop!
I then re-spread my straw over the top of the seed to help with moisture retention.
If you don't have straw, leaves or grass clippings, Step 8 will be even more
important to ensure good soil-seed contact.

Step 10. Water! I watered my cover crop with a "back and forth"
sprinkler for about a week for 10-12 minutes a day.  Just enough
to keep the seed moist, but not wet.  My drip irrigation wouldn't have
worked, since you need even moisture distribution.
Step 11. Success!  Nine days later, the cover crop has germinated
and is starting to fill in.  I'll leave it until next spring when I'll till it into
the soil as a green manure.
Wait 'til next year, Willow!  We'll have the best tomatoes ever!


  1. Ali, how fun! I was thinking of getting a load of wood chips to cover everything this fall, but I am liking this better! I will give 'er a try.


  2. I thought you'd like to know that someone is using your beagle photo without crediting you. And they've altered it with text.