How do you dig in your cover crops?

My latest big thing is cover crops.  In the past I was a fair weather gardener and once I got tired of zucchini or picking tomatoes became a hassle I would just stop gardening and walk away.  Although to give myself a bit of credit here the crops had entered the end of season manky stage where they were lacking the same degree of quality of new season ones.  And besides it was a bit cold and rainy so I just didn’t go out into the garden any more.   Come spring I would invariably run over rakes and hoes lying in the long grass when trying to whip the garden into shape for the spring.

Mowing weeds
How I prepared for spring as a fair weather gardener

I’ve come a long way since then.  Gardening has seeped into my being.  On asked “What are you Sarah?”  I would most definitely have to answer “A gardener.”  I feel the need to do something garden related every day and when too much time passes by without the ability to absorb myself in the pleasures of the soil, I start to lose the plot a little.  I’m more centred and grounded when I’m gardening.

So as an obsessive compulsive gardener, I have taken full advantage of the end of the season to get a head start on the next one.  Initially this was borne out of the frenzied panic that rolled around each spring as I tried to get my garden ready and in tip top condition in time for the occupants of the greenhouse to move in before becoming leggy or root bound.  The first logical plan for me was to spend the entire winter weeding.  It was fabulous, I was out there with my gloves on pulling weeds I couldn’t feel with my frozen fingers.  And come spring.  I was ready.

Lupin cover crop
Lupin cover crop

But a gardener is always learning and so when cover crops suddenly appeared in every video, magazine, blog, book and billboard, I thought I should give them ago.  I’m exaggerating about the billboard, but up until that point I wasn’t aware of them, probably because I’d never noticed them, or thought to notice them – too busy pulling weeds.

So these days I love the idea of soil restoration through cover crops, and relish scattering mustard seeds about where soil needs a bit of TLC thanks to the previous crop being a little manky, or just by nature prone to leaving behind spores of goodness knows what.  Or the Lupin seeds into the beds that have had high nitrogen feeders or are about to.  I love watching them flourish in the late autumn when everything else seems to be fading away and being pulled out.

Mustard cover crop
Mustard cover crop

But then comes the point just before flowering and I know I don’t have long before they will set seed and become a weed in themselves and so need to come down and be dug in.  It is the digging in that fills me with dread.  It is not easy.  Well not the way I do it.  Oh how I long for a shredder.  There is just a few weeks of the year when this is considered the most essential item on the planet.  And I must have one.  But I don’t.

The first time I tried to dig them in I pulled the plants out and laid them on the top as they were and tried with little success to turn them into the soil with the spade. It was hopeless and I ended up with a bed that looked like someone had run over a scarecrow with bits of stalk poking out everywhere.

The mustard cover crop is perfect for harvest
The mustard cover crop is perfect for harvest

So the next time I decided to chop them up.  But I’d left it a little long, as memories of the previous experience had caused serious procrastination.  So the stems had become a little woody, and required pruners to cut into manageable chunks.  It took forever and I nursed blisters for weeks.  I sprinkled the greenery over the top and tried to dig it into the soil, but every time I turned the soil, the previously dug in leaves rose to the top.  It was like herding kittens.

The following crop I was short on time and just left it lying on the surface of the bed and hoped the worms would do the digging.  They didn’t.  It just went dry and crispy and was prone to blowing away. It didn’t really add the organic matter and structure to the soil like it was supposed to.

mustard cover crop
Removed and chopped, but now what?

So this time I put my back into it.  No procrastinating.  I got those stalks while they were still green and tender.  Which would be about the right time as the flowers were just beginning to show as a possibility.  And like some crazed maniac on a frenzied mission I tore up the cover crops into small pieces.  No pruners needed and no blisters.   It felt good.  I was in control of the crop!

Digging in the cover crop
This better work!

But then I had to get it into the ground.  I needed a strategy.  So I divided the bed into thirds and grabbed my spade.   And I dug and dug and dug.  I went about half way down the depth of the raised bed and piled all the soil on the other side.  Then in the bottom of my trench I laid a third of the torn up cover crop. Then I used the soil from the middle third to bury the leaves and return the soil to the right level, but continued on to dig out the middle section without unearthing what had been covered. And of course repeating again so running through the middle layer of my raised bed is a lovely layer of mustard.  It took a lot of effort but it looks nice now.

Digging in the cover crop
Much better. Most of the cover crop is under the soil!

But surely there has to be an easier way?

Come again soon – I really do think it is time to take down the tomatoes, I’m just kidding myself it’s still tomato season.

Sarah the Gardener  : o )

20 thoughts on “How do you dig in your cover crops?

  1. I know that “herding kittens” feeling- that’s the way I do it: before flowering, get the spade and chop all the greenery down and then attempt to dig it under the soil. It ain’t easy, but I am not sure if I have the energy to do it your new way!

    1. Hi Lindy. Sometimes we do some crazy things in pursuit of a great garden. I shall be watching the new season crops looking for healthier, happier plants with greater yields so I can decide if in fact it was worth it. It better be!
      Cheers Sarah : o )

  2. Lovely idea could you not mow them down with the lawnmower first then dig them in or add to your compost pile then in winter cover your beds for the winter frost and snow to break down or get a tiler thing to help bury them while digging

    1. Hi Linda. I wish it was that easy. The mower photo was from back when I didn’t garden in the winter and grass and reclaimed my garden. Most of my cover crops are too tall for the mower. And we don’t get snow and these days only the occasional frost.
      But I shall keep experimenting to try and find a way that gives good results and that I’ll be happy to repeat again and again. If it is too hard for no noticeable difference in yield then there isn’t a lot of point really. But you gotta try.
      Thanks for your suggestions.
      Cheers Sarah : o )

  3. Sarah, in my beds I only turn the soil only first time. Cover crop I use mostly is soy bean plant thickly. I chop and drop then plant in them. I do not leave my soil uncovered. I buy some of these broad beans, hulless rye and a number of others at Whole Foods. Gene

    1. Hi Gene. I do like the the thought of making the cover crop a mulch. I think I’d need to get my timing right or try different varieties as most autumn plantings I’ve tried are too far gone by spring to be of much use as a mulch.
      I think there are still many possible ways to try out, to get the most out of cover crops. Gardeners never stop learning – that’s for sure!
      Cheers Sarah : o )

    1. Hi. A tiller would be lovely, but at this point it wouldn’t be placed very high on the great big list of things we need to buy, especially when we have growing boys out growing clothes what almost seems like weekly!
      Besides, if the digging gets too much Hubby the Un-Gardener is often more than happy to do a bit of digging for me – so I guess I sort of have a ‘man’ual tiller!
      Cheers Sarah : o)

  4. I used to do in but wasn’t meticulous. Now I have moved to a more no-dig system, so I grow and then put in the compost bin. That does mean the nutrients don’t go immediately into the soil and I am still waiting on the compost but I couldn’t bear to dig. Sounds like your method was double digging – good exercise!

    1. Hi Helen. If my crops don’t seem to have greatly benefited from all my efforts next season I may adopt your compost approach, however I may find myself still digging the soil as some of my weeds have the nastiest roots so it is the only way to know the garden is clear for the new plants.
      Cheers Sarah : o )

      1. You can get a special spade which is a thin funnel. My neighbour has one and uses it to pull up dandelions.

        Of course, that won’t solve the weed issue completely… I have some weeds which need to be dug up. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed too late and already have stuff growing round them…. On the other hand, just pulling them out as far as you can weakens them.

  5. I feel exhausted for you 🙂 Bed looks good.

    I haven’t really done cover crops before but had already been looking into them for the end of this year. I dig my beds over before the new season anyway, so I was thinking cover crops wouldn’t necessarily cause me that much more work……. famous last words 🙂 x

    1. HI Elaine. I know – it is so much work, and I have a few more beds ready for the same treatment!
      My logic was well … I normally have so much work to clear the beds from weeds etc I might as well do all that digging and clearing with something beneficial.
      So we shall have to see how well the crops do next season to determine if all that digging was actually worth it! Watch this space.
      Cheers Sarah : o )

  6. I planted a cover crop of fava beans a few years ago, and like you, didn’t know how to go about working it into the soil. I did something right, because that box produced the most amazing crop. I felt a bit ridiculous though, hacking away with my spade and wondering why nothing would stay under ground. Thanks for sharing your experiences and congratulations on finding the formula that worked for you.

    In the past two years (and keep in mind I have a teensy weensy garden compared to you, I used the boxes for mulching over the winter. It worked out well. I even got a few bonus crops, mostly tomatoes and potatoes, but that was fun too.

    1. Hi Alys. Cover crops are fabulous – until the digging in bit. Any instructions I have read have just simply stated “dig in” without any indication as to how much of a nightmare it is. Mulching is one of my bigger problems as my garden is too big to buy mulch. I’d be broke – so I grow wheat for the straw in empty beds over the winter and lay it around crops in the spring. It seems to work well enough. Cheers Sarah : o )

      1. You’re garden is an impressive size, so I’m sure it would be cost-prohibitive. I ‘borrowed’ fallen leaves from three neighbors by raking them up form the sidewalks and street to use in my sheet mulching project. It took quite a bit.

  7. Hi Sarah, as a new Follower I have been catching up on some of your past blogs and came across this one about cover crops. Like you, I tried them and had the same difficulties incorporating them into the soil. After doing a bit of reading I came up with the following: broad (fava) beans cut down at ground level during the early spring, the nitrogen fixing roots left in the soil and the green tops on the compost heap. Crops were then planted between the roots which slowly broke down during the summer. It worked well. You can use a strimmer, or hedge cutters to chop the tops down, although I used to do it manually. Having become an older, and I like to think wiser! gardener, I no longer dig my soil, and over-winter my beds with a layer of compost. This makes for easy weeding and well conditioned soil to plant into in the spring. Do try it, as the Dilmah chap says! And please, no tiller/rotovators as they are not only expensive but totally destroy your soil organisms and structure. You might enjoy reading Robert Pavlis on this matter.

    Hope your spring has dried off and all is growing as fast as mine is.

    Elizabeth B

    1. Hi Elizabeth. I’ve used the chop and drop method in the past when I was running out of time and it worked quite well. I do tend to find that I do need to give my garden a bit of a dig over in the spring as my soil gets quite compacted over the course of a year and if I left it nothing would grow well as the seedling roots wouldn’t be able to penetrate the heavy soil. The key to it all is finding out what works best for you and your garden. I hope you have a fabulous season and all that rain is behind us now. Cheers Sarah : o)

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