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Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers

Cover crops for fall

Rye, wheat, and spelt

By late September and October, most vegetables are harvested and there is more time to think about cover crops. But it is also too late to establish the best choices, which are planted earlier in September. Here are some options for planting later in the fall.

Rye
Rye is the cover crop that will provide winter soil protection when sown late in the season. It will use any mild fall days to develop a root system that will hold saturated soil together at snowmelt. It must be carefully managed in the spring to prevent excessive growth and suppression of crops.

Winter soil protection requires significant fall growth. The later you plant rye, the smaller the plant will be over the winter. It is possible to compensate by increasing the seeding rate from the 80lb/ac used in mid-September. By early October, it can take as much as 250 lb/ac. This seeding rate should be incentive to get the seed in the ground sooner. Drilling gives a few more days of growth compared to broadcasting on the surface. It also lets the plants anchor better to reduce frost heaving.

Wheat
Wheat will provide a small amount of growth, but generally little soil protection in the winter. It is also prone to frost heaving in the spring. It may have value as a nurse crop for frost seeded medium red clover.

Spelt
Spelt has a little more tolerance of cold and wet soil than regular wheat, so the stand tends to be better. It is not as tolerant as rye, but is easier on the following crop. Spelt heads a few days earlier than wheat, which can be helpful when controlling it in spring. When drilling spelt, make sure the drop tubes are smooth and straight so that they don’t clog with the light seed.

If fall is getting on and there is crop residue in the field, it may be preferable to frost seed mustard or medium red clover very early in spring.