How to Choose a Fall Cover Crop to Improve Your Soil

Updated August 3, 2020

What is a Cover Crop?

Cover crops have been in use for centuries. Gardeners typically plant them in the offseason and then harvest them before they plant the cash crop. They usually grow over the winter to manage soil quality, fertility, and erosion.

Soil erosion can be devastating for gardeners. It is the process by which the productive capacity of an ecosystem wears down.

Cover crops slow down the rate at which rainfall connects with the soil’s surface, preventing runoff.

It keeps the soil in place, so it is ready for the actual crop you want to harvest. In addition to preventing erosion, there are numerous other benefits to be gained by planting a cover crop before your cash crop.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are found to improve soils in several ways- by protecting existing soil, contributing organic material and nutrients, and keeping the soil alive year-round to ensure healthy composition.

What are the Benefits of Cover Crops?

Cover crops can improve the overall structure of the soil. The roots of the crop allow the soil to avoid compaction, and they create pore spaces and passages when the roots take hold, which allows for moisture to build up.

Cover crops are great for any organic matter because it stimulates the production of microorganisms. You can wait until the cover crop dies or use it as a form of compost to maintain healthy soil quality throughout the entire year.

Cover crops contribute to the biodiversity of your garden by attracting a wide variety of insects to your soil. When you attract insects to the site, you will inevitably attract some pollinators, and these bugs assist with the propagation of your garden plants.

You may also benefit from your cover crop by using it as produce. Some common varieties of cover crops include legumes and mustard plants. When it comes time to harvest the plant, you can enjoy some tasty snacks right before you plant your cash crop.

Mulching and composting are hard work. You can save yourself a lot of time and energy by simply using a cover crop. It makes it an ideal choice when you have a large area where you need to improve the soil quality.

Anyone wanting to know how to make the soil more alkaline can rest easy knowing cover crops add nitrogen to the soil, especially if you decide on using a legume for your cover crop. When the cover crop dies, the nitrogen remains in the soil for future plants to benefit from.

The reason why many gardeners refer to cover crops as living mulches is due to their ability to suppress weeds. The roots of your crops will compete with any weeds in the garden for essential nutrients.

The cover crop usually wins out, and the weeds die when they are deprived of the materials they need to live. Additionally, the leaves of the crops cover the ground, preventing the weeds from performing photosynthesis. With so many advantages to cover crops, it is easy to see why gardeners have adopted them for centuries.

Photo of annual ryegrass Lolium multiflorum

Annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum), also called Italian ryegrass, is a valuable cover crop. Planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop allows the dense roots to catch excess nitrogen and help break up hard soils. Ryegrass cover crops are fast-growing in cool seasons.

What Are The Types of Cover Crops?

There are four variations of cover crops you need to consider. You can select between non-legume broadleaves, brassicas, legumes, and grasses. Each one has its own benefits, and these are the most common varieties.


Barley is tolerant of saline and dry soils, and it can grow up to two to three feet in height.


Oats are tolerant of wet soil, and they create the least organic material out of all of the grasses.

They can grow between two and three feet in height. However, you need to remember that oats generally succumb to the detrimental effects of winter.

Winter Rye

Winter rye is highly recommended for colder winter climates, and it is exceptionally tolerant of acidic soils. This plant can grow between four to five feet in height, and you can sow between two and three pounds for every 1,000 square feet of the plant.

Annual Ryegrass

You need to be careful with annual ryegrass because it can turn to weeds if you are not careful.

The seeds are affordable, and it does well in tolerating flooding. It can grow between two and three feet in height.


Grasses are a popular choice of the cover crop because they grow quickly, improve the structure of heavily compacted soils, and tolerate the cold well.

They do well in controlling erosion, which is great for wetter areas. You can mow or cut down the grass in the springtime before setting your other seeds.

Crimson Clover

Crimson clover can turn into an invasive weed if it goes to seed, so be careful. It grows up to 18 inches in height.

Berseem Clover

Berseem clover produces high quantities of nitrogen. It grows between one and two feet in height, and you can sow two pounds for every 1,000 square feet planted.

Field Pea

Field pea is a late maturing and low growing crop. It can grow to be several feet in height although some varieties will only make it to six inches.

Hairy Vetch

Hairy vetch is recommended when you already have poor soil, and it matures very late into the season. It grows to be two feet in height.

Hardy Legumes

Hardy legumes are suggested when you need some nitrogen-fixing crops. Legumes typically do not mature until May, so you will need to cut them down before they go to flower.

You need to consider what soil and climate your crops will be in. It will allow you to select a cover crop best suited for your garden.


Photo of Clover aka Trifolium

Clover, also known as Trifolium, is a common genus of plant that can be found all across the United States. For this reason, clover is an ideal candidate for cover crop programs in many situations.


When and How to Add HGO to Your Fall Cover Crop

Harvest Gold Organics Premium Soil Conditioner offers a valuable nutrient that offers numerous benefits to your crops.

It results in robust, healthy plants, and it is easy to add. It lasts a long time within your crops, and it reduces the total volume of water you need in your garden.

You can add HGO when you plant your cover crops, this will amplify the benefits of your “green manure” because HGO releases silica and nine other macro and micro-nutrients that your plants will love. Come springtime when you plant your cash crops, you will notice a strong start and denser plants.

Simply mix HGO into the soil, add the cover crop seed and water.

Harvest Gold Organics provides products for your garden that are from the land, not the lab that will take your garden to the next level.

In the event you have any questions or comments about our products, then feel free to reach out. We are happy to point you in the right direction so that you have healthy cover crops and vibrant cash crops once spring comes around.



Image Credit: Shutterstock/ Peter_Fleming