Cover crops can be planted by inoculating their seed and sowing from mid-September until the end of October, depending on soil moisture. Prepare the area by ensuring the seed has optimal seed-to-soil contact and always time your planting around a rainfall event.
Move aside mulches before seeding, and broadcast one to two pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet of garden. Legumes do not need fertilizer applications of nitrogen, but may require phosphorous or potassium. A soil test is the only way to know for sure what you need to apply (if anything).
Other crops like wheat may need one to two pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Lightly cover the seed with a rake, and make certain you have a firm seedbed before planting because many cover crops, like clover, have tiny seeds that will die if they are planted too deep.
If your foot sinks in your garden more than half an inch, your soil is too fluffy and you need to firm it. Use a drip hose or a light sprinkle of water to keep the soil surface moist until germination. As always, conserve moisture by watering in the early morning.
Cover crops act as living mulch that can be prolonged into the growing season. When ready to plant this spring, simply string trim or clear a small area for individual plants among the growing cover crop.
The legumes will continue to fix nitrogen that tomatoes, cucumbers or onions will use. Some recommend removing the crop before flowering, but leaving the plant is not detrimental to the garden and will attract pollinators.
Tilling in a cover crop can be done but adds another step and is not recommended for optimum soil health. Planting legumes and allowing the plant to die back and decompose naturally into the earth will keep the soil, beneficial microbes and earthworms happy. This will produce a vibrant and productive garden that is diverse and healthy.
Tracey Payton Miller is Cleveland County’s horticulture extension educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension.