Cover Crops for Vegetable Rotations Revisited

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

August is here and it is time to consider late summer and fall cover crop options for vegetable rotations. Cover crop planting windows vary with crop and timely planting is essential to achieve the desired results. Here are some reasons to consider using cover crops in vegetable rotations:

Return organic matter to the soil. Vegetable rotations are tillage intensive and organic matter is oxidized at a high rate. Cover crops help to maintain organic matter levels in the soil, a critical component of soil health and productivity.

Provide winter cover. By having a crop (including roots) growing on a field in the winter you recycle plant nutrients (especially nitrogen), reduce leaching losses of nitrogen, reduce erosion by wind and water, and reduce surface compaction and the effects of heavy rainfall on bare soils. Cover crops also compete with winter annual weeds and can help reduce weed pressure in the spring.

Reduce certain diseases and other pests. Cover crops help to maintain soil organic matter. Residue from cover crops can help increase the diversity of soil organisms and reduce soil borne disease pressure. Some cover crops may also help to suppress certain soil borne pests, such as nematodes, by releasing compounds that affect these pests upon decomposition.

Provide nitrogen for the following crop. Leguminous cover crops, such as hairy vetch or crimson clover, can provide significant amounts of nitrogen, especially for late spring planted vegetables.

Improve soil physical properties. Cover crops help to maintain or improve soil physical properties and reduce compaction. Roots of cover crops and incorporated cover crop residue will help improve drainage, water holding capacity, aeration, and tilth.

There are many cover crop options for late summer or fall planting, including:

Small Grains
Rye is often used as a winter cover as it is very cold hardy and deep rooted. It has the added advantage of being tall and strips can be left the following spring to provide windbreaks in crops such as watermelons. Rye makes very good surface mulch for roll-kill or plant through no-till systems for crops such as pumpkins. It also can be planted later (up to early November) and still provide adequate winter cover. Wheat, barley, and triticale are also planted as winter cover crops by vegetable producers.

Spring oats may also be used as a cover crop and can produce significant growth if planted in late August or early September. It has the advantage of winter killing in most years, thus making it easier to manage for early spring crops such as peas or cabbage. All the small grain cover crops will make more cover with some nitrogen application or the use of manure.

To get full advantage of small grain cover crops, use full seeding rates and plant early enough to get some fall tillering. Drilling is preferred to broadcast or aerial seeding.

Ryegrasses
Both perennial and annual ryegrasses also make good winter cover crops. They are quick growing in the fall and can be planted from late August through October. If allowed to grow in the spring, ryegrasses can add significant organic matter to the soil when turned under, but avoid letting them go to seed.

Winter Annual Legumes
Hairy vetch, crimson clover, field peas, subterranean clover, and other clovers are excellent cover crops and can provide significant nitrogen for vegetable crops that follow. Hairy vetch works very well in no-till vegetable systems where it is allowed to go up to flowering and then is killed by herbicides or with a roller-crimper. It is a common system for planting pumpkins in the region but also works well for late plantings of other vine crops, tomatoes and peppers. Hairy vetch, crimson clover and subterranean clover can provide from 80 to well over 100 pounds of nitrogen equivalent. Remember to inoculate the seeds of these crops with the proper Rhizobial inoculants for that particular legume. All of these legume species should be planted as early as possible – from the last week in August through the end of September to get adequate fall growth. These crops need to be established at least 4 weeks before a killing frost.

Brassica Species
There has been an increase in interest in the use of certain Brassica species as cover crops for vegetable rotations.

Rapeseed has been used as a winter cover and has shown some promise in reducing levels of certain nematode in the soil. To take advantage of the biofumigation properties of rapeseed you plant the crop in late summer, allow the plant to develop until early next spring and then till it under before it goes to seed. It is the leaves that break down to release the fumigant-like chemical. Mow rapeseed using a flail mower and plow down the residue immediately. Never mow down more area than can be plowed under within two hours. Note: Mowing injures the plants and initiates a process releasing nematicidal chemicals into the soil. Failure to incorporate mowed plant material into the soil quickly, allows much of these available toxicants to escape by volatilization.

Turnips and mustards can be used for fall cover but not all varieties and species will winter over into the spring. Several mustard species have biofumigation potential and a succession rotation of an August planting of biofumigant mustards that are tilled under in October followed by small grain can significantly reduce diseases for spring planted vegetables that follow.

More recent research in the region has been with forage radish. It produces a giant tap root that acts like a bio-drill, opening up channels in the soil and reducing compaction. When planted in late summer, it will produce a large amount of growth and will smother any winter annual weeds. It will then winter kill leaving a very mellow, weed-free seedbed. It is an ideal cover crop for systems with early spring planted vegetables such as peas.

Oilseed radish is similar to forage radish but has a less significant root. It also winter kills.

Brassicas must be planted early – mid-August through mid-September – for best effect.

Mixtures
Mixtures of rye with winter legume cover crops (such as hairy vetch) have been successful and offer the advantage, in no-till systems, of having a more rapidly decomposing material with the longer residual rye as a mulch.

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