The Q&A Archives: Annual Groundcover for Vegetable Garden

Question: I am trying to plant my first garden. I will be planting using raised beds and I would like to plant a cover crop between the rows to keep down the mud, erosion and to keep down weeds. I was wondering what you recommended that would serve as a green manure (as I don't want to use any chemicals) and will stay fairly low to the ground so as not to restrict light to my other plants. Also can you tell me what kind of care it would need i.e., need to be tilled under after so many weeks or after flowering, water requirements, etc. The soil is a little heavy on the clay side but is pretty good aside from that. I am in zone 4.

Answer: Annual ryegrass is a good choice for between the rows. It grows quickly, tolerates mowing, grows thickly to outcompete weeds, and contributes a lot of organic matter to soil. It's also tolerant of a variety of soil conditions. Sow in spring at a rate of 1-2 lbs/1000 sq ft. Soybeans also tolerate poor drainage, and fix nitrogen in the soil. You may have to search a bit to find a soybean that doesn't shade out your crops though. If you purchase soybean seed that is not "inoculated" with beneficial, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, purchase some of this inoculum and use as directed.

Start them when the soil warms and risk of frost has passed. You can sow seed for cover crops by simply "broadcasting" them over the smoothly raked seedbed. Mixing seed with fine sand helps distribute it evenly. Then cover the seed. For rye, you need only rake the soil to make sure the seed makes contact. Soybeans should have 1/4-1/2" of soil or compost coverage. Sprinkle the area to make sure there's enough moisture for germination.

If you've never gardened in clay soil before, take care not to work in the garden when the soil is wet. To do so is to risk turning your garden into a hard, tennis court surface!

There is also the option of growing your crops so intensively that they shade out competing weeds. You can read more about this growing method in John Jeavons' book, How to Grow More Vegetables...", Ten Speed Press, ISBN: 0898157676.

Best of luck!

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