It is a winter annual grass that will continue to grow until
temperatures drop to about 40 degrees and resume growth when
temperatures warm in spring. Winter rye germinates quickly, and
tolerates wet or dry conditions, low fertility, and acid soils.
It secretes a substance that inhibits the growth of many weeds
and other plants, so it is important to mow it down and till it
in about four weeks prior to planting vegetables or flowers next
spring. All raw organic matter can tie up available soil
nitrogen as it decomposes and cause a temporary nitrogen
deficiency in crops, so working it into the soil early enough
avoids that problem as well. Winter rye produces a dense root
system and lush foliage, so it can be difficult to till under.
It helps to mow it short prior to trying to till it in. It may
be easier to compost the clippings for later application to
garden beds, and till in the crowns and roots alone.
Certain legumes are often used as cover crops, but really
provide the most benefit if you plant them in spring and allow
them to grow all summer, which can take too much valuable space
in a home garden. Legumes are plants that have the unique
ability to fix nitrogen from the air in association with soil
bacteria, and they return that nitrogen when they are cut back
and tilled into the soil. They also have extensive root systems
and are a good choice to break up hard, compacted clay soils.
Their best use in home gardens may be to start new beds in
places where the soil is less-than-ideal. Strip off the sod,
plant a cover crop of legumes, and allow them to grow for a
season before working them into the soil. Plant the desired
crops next year. Legumes used for cover crops include clovers,
hairy vetch, and alfalfa. Be sure to cut them back before they
go to seed, or some will make a nuisance of themselves.
Planting a cover crop
To plant a winter rye cover crop, remove spent annual vegetables
and flowers from the garden. Till up the soil to prepare a good
seedbed, then broadcast the seed at two to two-and-a-half pounds
per thousand square feet. Rake it in lightly and water to start
the germination process.
Composting for the garden