Growing cover crops has enjoyed a recent rise in popularity in farming as concerns about soil loss have increased. The resulting increase in organic matter from growing cover crops helps in many ways. These include an improvement in soil structure and resistance to erosion, better water penetration and holding, increased soil biological activity, better plant nutrient holding and more. Home and market vegetable gardeners should seriously consider the benefits of cover crops in their efforts.
When growing winter rye for the first time one important question is when to turn it under. Consider this question from two standpoints: 1)how to get the most benefit and least drawbacks in the burial operation, and 2) when you want to plant your vegetable crop.
after turning under
If left to grow until taller than 18 inches, rye enters the reproduction (flowering) stage and tends to have a high carbon to nitrogen ratio due to the high cellulose and lignin content that develops to stiffen stems. This means the plant parts you bury in the soil can be slow to decompose. Note that not only plant height but more so day length promotes flowering. Winter rye flowers when days reach 14 hours in spring.
The second consideration in when to turn under a cover crop is when you want to plant. Allow a minimum of a month for the leaves and roots to break down before seeding or transplanting. This allows soil nitrogen availability to stabilize after being temporarily tied up by the soil microbes
Now is generally the time to turn under your winter cover crop if you are planning to plant warm season vegetables in late May or early June.
Photo credit: All photos credit Carl Wilson.