Howdy Grow Appalachians! Holly, HQ VISTA checking in, and it has suddenly occurred to me that this will be my LAST blog as a VISTA!  Wow!!!! I can’t believe a year has already come and gone. This VISTA service has been an invaluable experience for me, and I wanted to thank all of you for putting up with my sometimes cheesy humor, my probably-sometimes-irritating blog-related emails and conversations, and all my report-related nonsense throughout this past year.  Much like some of you site coordinators and gardeners, this Grow Appalachia thing has been a learning curve for me, too. But what makes this Grow Appalachia thing so bearable and worthwhile for me is those out in the field and behind-the-scenes at each site, literally making it happen for countless families who otherwise would be without.  To say that you are an inspiration is a gross understatement; your work is far from easy, so I thank you for doing your absolute best to make your part of Appalachia a little bit better. Lastly, I hope that you continue to see the importance and impact of this work, because it really is making a difference.

In case you were wondering what’s next for me, for those of you that may not know, I am very fortunate to share that I will be staying at Grow Appalachia HQ as a full-time staff member, effective at the end of my VISTA term (which is the 28th!). Thankful doesn’t even begin to describe it, and I’m looking forward to transitioning onward.  I will still be blogging, although perhaps not bi-weekly, so be sure to check back for more cheesy humor and garden knowledge from yours truly.

All right, on to the important stuff: We’re “covering” cover crops this week (Somebody better stop me now!), or more specifically, fall and winter cover crops. Believe it or not, August is already halfway over, so it’s definitely time to start thinking about fall gardens. One of the options for a fall garden is implementing a cover crop system. I’m willing to bet that many of you are already familiar with this concept, but for those of you that may not be, I’ll start from the beginning. A cover crop is a crop that is planted for the purpose of improving overall soil health, managing erosion, pests, and disease, and to boost additional nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil. Cover crops, when grown, are often tilled back into the soil, which is why they’re sometimes referred to as green manure. What makes cover crops so ideal is that unlike vegetables, they require basic maintenance in order to thrive.  If you’re still not entirely sold, think of cover cropping this way: You have a bare patch on your lawn- what’s the first thing you do? Reseed it, of course! The same mindset should apply to your garden as well, especially since bare soil is not ideal.

Depending on what you are needing or looking for, cover crops are broken down into three families: legumes, non-legumes, and mixes.

Legumes include winter peas, clover, vetch, and beans. Legumes are primarily nitrogen-fixers, although they also attract pollinators and help with erosion. The longer the nitrogen is “fixed”, the longer it stays around, so legumes provide beneficial nutrition to others long after the crop has died off.

Non-legumes include grasses, cereal grains (rye, wheat, barley), and broadleafs, which include buckwheat, a fast-growing crop that will produce a flowering result in about 30 days; this makes it a popular choice. Non-legumes are most ideal for weed suppression and increasing overall organic matter in the soil. Use a non-legume if you have an overabundance of nitrogen in your soil.

Mixes are a combination of cover crop families that serve to tailor to a wider variety of benefits. For example, a couple of well-known mixes are winter peas/rye and winter peas/oats, which provide benefits of both legumes and non-legumes. Cover crop mixes often boast greater biomass, greater weed control, and greater forage, if you have livestock. However, there are a few drawbacks associated with mixes: they are often more costly, more difficult to maintain than single cover crops, and are sometimes more difficult to sow.

Clover cover crop 1

“Variety is the spice of life”

If you’re wanting to include some cover crops into your garden but are unsure of what to grow, here are a few options.

If you’re wanting to overwinter; that is, keep it growing through the winter:

Winter rye- Can be sown anytime in spring through mid-fall for green manure. Sow at a rate of 4/6 lbs per 1000 square feet. Very hardy; use if you are wanting to add organic matter or prevent erosion. Will grow back in spring.

Hairy vetch- You can sow this legume with our without grain starting in spring through late summer. Spring regrowth intensifies if sown in the late summer, with a typical nitrogen-producing rate of 110 lbs/acre. Prefers well-drained soils with a pH of 6.0-7.0. Like rye, will grow back in spring.

Crimson clover- Dormant in winter, resumes growing in spring, and flowers in late spring where winters are above -10F. Fixes up to 200 lbs nitrogen/acre. Does not grow well in summer heat. Can sow with grain/grass or independently. Will die off in winter.

If you’re looking for fall varieties:

Buckwheat- Heat-tolerant and fast-growing, with a flowered result in about 30 days. Buckwheat is good for soil erosion and it also attracts pollinators (Just don’t let it go to seed). We have this planted up at the HQ garden and it is beautiful!! 🙂

Sweet clover- Offered in a yellow or white variety. Its taproots carry water and minerals deep into the soil. Growth is much more substantial second year. Nitrogen-producing rate of as high as 170 lbs/acre. A good choice if your soil is not the greatest.  Grows up to six feet tall!

Field peas- Can be sown as soon as possible in spring, or in fall. Cold-hardy and great for overwintering. Also ideal if your soil is not the best, primarily if it doesn’t drain well. Fixes nitrogen at a rate of 70-120 lbs/acre.


Have any of you used cover crops in the past, or are wanting to? What have you grown?

Happy cover cropping and harvesting, and I’ll see you all on the other side of VISTA!




More on field peas

Fall cover crops

Cover crop choices from Johnny’s Seeds

Winter cover crops from Mother Earth News

Feature image is buckwheat growing at the Grow App HQ research garden