The Q&A Archives: Planting rye as cover crop

Question: I'm planting annual rye as a cover crop. One book says it will die over the winter and decompose by spring. Another book says it will survive the winter, dying off in May or June. Who's right? LaVonne Ford East Greenwich, RI

Answer: Whether annual ryegrass survives the winter depends on the time of seeding and the winter weather, says Rosanne Sherry, coordinator of the Master Gardener program at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston. In a typical year, annual ryegrass plantedbefore mid September can complete its life cycle, go to seed and die before the ground freezes, she explains. If you didn't plant until October and the winter were mild, it could survive and flower in spring. I don't, however, recommend growing annual ryegrass as a cover crop in Rhode Island, says Sherry. It self sows vigorously and can become a weed in the lawn and other gardens, she explains. I suggest growing winter rye instead. Winter rye planted in October will germinate quickly and grow until the ground freezes, then provide erosion control through the winter. In mid March, till the winter rye under and let it die. You can usually plant into the tilled soil two to three weeks later, says Sherry. If you wait until April or May to turn winter rye under, it will have grown so much you'll have to chop it down first, she explains. The stalks should be saved and can be used as an organic mulch later in the season.

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