Cover Crops, Soil Improvement

Rye Cover Crop: Winter Ground Covers


Rye cover crop

Cover cropping with a rye cover crop is an easy way to keep your soil profile healthy and in place while you’re not using it for your subsequent crops. A season of downtime can cause the soil to erode and lose nutrients, but a grain rye cover crop can prevent this. Using a cereal rye cover crop is a good idea because you can use a chop-and-drop method to return nitrogen into the soil, meaning your next crop won’t need as much fertilizer!

Cover cropping is often used by farmers or gardeners who grow on a large scale, but backyard gardeners can make use of this nature “hack,” too. It’s an easy way to provide much-needed nutrients in the spring and suppress weeds during the cool months. Why wouldn’t you want to make your life easier?

Let’s talk about the cover cropping definition and why you should incorporate rye into your garden, no matter how small it may be.

What Are Cover Crops?

Cereal rye
Cereal rye makes an incredible cover crop option. Source: Conservation Media Library

Cover crops are another way you can “work smarter, not harder” in the garden. They’re planted in areas that you’re not currently growing crops to protect the soil surface from erosion. Many people use cover crop seed to rejuvenate soil after having been used for a while. 

On a large scale, farmers will cover entire fields in cover crops to prevent the wind from blowing away all the soil or snow, causing the ground to freeze and compact. This method is often used with crop rotation, before planting corn or some other cash crop. While you’re not using one space for what you usually grow, you can grow a cover crop instead so it will be full of nutrients the next time you use it.

On a smaller scale, you can plant cover crops for raised beds, similar to how farmers handle their fields. You can also plant cover crops between rows of vegetables or fruits to suppress weeds.

Types of Cover Crops

Almost any plant can be a cover crop, but there are categories you can utilize in the garden. Each one gives different benefits, so you need to decide which kind will work best for you based on your needs.

Brassicas

Brassicas are a good cover crop because you can eat your harvest! This winter-hardy family of crops will survive winter in many areas and capture nutrients, trap nematodes and other pests, and stop soil erosion by covering the area with their large leaves. Try growing collard greens as a cover crop in an area of your garden!

Broadleaf Plants

Other cover crops, like broadleaf plants that aren’t Brassicas or legumes are a great option because they grow quickly and offer many of the same benefits as Brassicas. You can eat your harvest or chop-and-drop plants like spinach to nourish your next round of crops. Yields range as much or as little as you want. 

Grasses

Grasses like cereal rye, barley, standing corn, or oats are almost always used as with the chop-and-drop method because they release nitrogen and carbon into the soil. They are also used in cereal cropping. The nutrients from cereal grains will help your next crops develop deep root systems and plenty of foliage. Grasses are also used because they have deep roots that will keep the soil in place and easy to till. Use high seeding rates to get a good amount of grain or nutrients from these. 

Legumes

If your beds need nitrogen, legume cover crops are the way to go! Legumes like beans and peas are nitrogen-fixing, so they’ll replenish the soil as they grow. They grow and break down quickly, making them a no-brainer choice for your garden beds. Plus, you can eat the harvest and chop-and-drop the foliage! A few examples of legume cover crops include a massive bean planting, hairy vetch, or field peas.

Benefits of Cover Cropping

Rye root system
Rye’s root system breaks up harder soil and reduces compaction. Source: Conservation Media Library

The list of benefits is long when it comes to cover cropping. However you grow your garden, there’s sure to be a way to make cover crops benefit you.

  • Reduces erosion: An empty field or flower bed will lose soil due to wind or flooding. When you cover an unused area with cover crops, the soil will mostly stay put because roots are anchoring it down and vice versa. Soil moisture will also be retained. Cover cropping is necessary on farms in windy areas, but home gardeners can benefit from this practice, too.
  • Keeps soil tillable: Root systems keep the soil loose and prevents compaction, making it easier for you to till the soil. Loose soil will make it easier for young roots to navigate, resulting in stronger root systems and healthier plants.
  • A quick solution: While it depends on the plant, many cover crops grow quickly, even when temperatures are cold. You can plant most cover crops in the fall and reap the rewards in early spring before you plant your next batch of seeds.
  • Weed suppression: Weed control is one of the biggest benefits to the home gardener. If the ground is covered by plants you want, there will be little opportunity for weeds to barge their way into your garden.
  • Retain soil moisture: Loose soil will prevent water runoff, and winter crops will trap snow so it will melt where you need water the most. 
  • Maintain soil fertility: As you continually use an area to grow crops, the soil quality will continue to build over time. Almost any plant will have a positive effect, but chop-and-drop crops and legumes (like hairy vetch) are particularly helpful.
  • Benefit wildlife: Continual plant availability will benefit wildlife, meaning you’ll see more pollinators and birds. Your cover crops will house beneficial insects and keep nature returning to your garden, which will help you have a more bountiful harvest. 

What Is Rye?

Rye is a kind of grass that’s used as a cover crop. It’s similar to other grasses like oats or barley and can be used to make bread, flour, and cereal. Cereal rye is specifically used for cereal making and is a common ground cover because it offers so many benefits. Rye can also be used to feed livestock. People seed rye to build residual soil for future crop establishment, prevent weed emergence, and build soil biomass. 

Pros of a Rye Cover Crop

While you may not use rye to make baked goods at home, you can certainly use it to improve your soil! However, there are rye varieties that can absolutely be used just as wheat or barley would be used. 

Ryegrass, especially cereal rye, is common because it can withstand cold temperatures and will grow quickly. It can germinate in temperatures down to 33°F, and mature plants can withstand temperatures as low as -30°F! When you sow rye, you can choose a later planting date in the fall season, which will allow you to benefit from your fall crops for as long as possible.

Rye has a deep root system, so it’s great for breaking up compacted soil or preventing compaction. Rye biomass and crop residue will also help retain moisture and allow water and nutrients to get deep into the ground, which will greatly increase soil health! This makes it suited to almost any soil type. Add that it is drought-tolerant and you’ve got a great crop at hand. 

You can establish rye at a high seeding rate and practice growing rye as a cover crop close together to prevent weeds and erosion and increase your yield. Rye is fairly disease resistant, so you likely won’t deal with many problems while you’re growing it. 

You should look out for fusarium head blight, a disease that affects multiple cereal grains. Remove any garden covering that has warped or discolored seed heads to prevent the spread of this disease.

You can use the chop-and-drop method when it’s time to harvest the rye, which is where you cut it down and work it into the soil to get those nutrients back into the soil. Your subsequent crop will have more access to improved soil structure than it would with conventional tillage. Ryegrass also makes a great mulch, so you can use it in that way, too, if you’d like.

Cons of a Rye Cover Crop

The biggest concern of rye as a cover crop is allelopathy. Some plants inhibit the growth of others, and rye can prevent seeds from germinating for several plants, especially corn, corn silage, or other cereal grains. You can avoid this by waiting at least two weeks before planting seeds in the same area as your rye. Spring rains than may cause rye residue to linger, which could hurt your next planting.

Another big concern is related to nitrogen fixation. Rye can tie up (steal) nitrogen from the soil if you don’t leave the root system or use the chop-and-drop method. Rye absorbs nitrogen as it grows, but returning the plants to the soil once you cut it down will add organic matter, returning the nutrients. If you choose to use the rye fields as mulch or to feed animals, you risk stripping the soil of a much-needed nutrient. 

Rye is a winter annual that needs cold weather to thrive, so you won’t see great results if you try to grow it in hot climates where there isn’t much cold weather in winter. Barley or oats are good alternatives if you live somewhere hot, but they’ll experience winter dormancy or winter kill.

If you plan to use your annual rye to feed animals, you’ll have to work quickly to harvest it because it goes from edible to dry straw very quickly in the spring. 

Another issue that can arise when cover cropping with rye is residual herbicides could remain on the plant after you’ve chopped and dropped. This can affect the resultant growth of subsequent crops. If you’re using herbicides, ensure you read the herbicide label carefully to prevent residual matter from getting onto a nearby rye crop. 

How to Plant a Rye Cover Crop

Chop and drop rye straw
When chopped and dropped, the rye straw enriches the soil as it decomposes. Source: Conservation Media Library

Planting rye seed and growing rye is an easy process that will give you a big reward. If you live in a cool area with cold winters, you’ll likely get success from this crop, especially when you work with a high seeding rate.

Growing Requirements

Growing rye is simple if you can provide it with full sun and consistent water. Rye thrives in cool temperatures with at least six hours of sunlight. It’s a hardy plant and can tolerate some dry soil, but aim to keep it moist. It can even handle some waterlogging if you end up with excess rain or snow.

Cereal rye and standing rye are forgiving when it comes to soil. They prefer sandy soils or light loam, but it will grow in almost anything, including heavy clay. Do what you can to provide rye with its preferences, but know that there’s some leeway if you can’t get it just right.

When to Plant Seeds

In hardiness zones 3-7, you can set an early planting date for rye anytime from late summer to mid-fall. In warmer climates, you’ll need to wait until late fall or mid-winter. Planting early will cause the plants to take up more nitrogen before winter, which will benefit you later when you till the rye into the soil.

Choose a planting date for planting winter rye grass between August and October, sowing the winter crop of your rye grain in early fall. Again, planting dates will be later for those in warmer areas. The goal is to have enough time for the rye to establish itself before the first light frost. Rye winter grass provides some vegetable garden cover, and erosion control as the soil temperature cools under light frost. 

Ways to Orient Your Crop

Rye can be planted in several ways in your garden. You can broadcast it with high seeding rates over a large area and use this method each year with rotational planting. You can plant it as a nurse crop to help establish another perennial crop too. 

You can also practice double cropping, planting rye seed alongside your corn crops, having rye biomass and corn stubble from your corn yield come harvest time. You’ll therefore have fodder for livestock, if needed, and provide weed management to your space at the same time.

You can also plant rye with a more controlled seeding rate in strips between rows of other crops to suppress weeds and provide a windbreak for tender seedlings or overseed with other crop seed to prevent weeds while the plants establish.

If a crop fails to grow in some place in your garden, springle some rye seeds in the area. You can use the rye for cover crop rye biomass and weed suppression benefits rather than mourn the loss of a crop you could’ve had. The rye residue will improve the soil, and you may have better luck growing another crop seed there next time!

How to Plant Seeds

Planting rye doesn’t take much effort. Broadcast viable seed where you want them and lightly till them into the ground. Make sure the seeding depth isn’t any deeper than two inches, or the rye seed may fail to germinate. Sow at a high rate for maximum rye biomass and weed suppression.

If an area is prone to erosion or has compacted soil, seed heavily since some seeds may not germinate due to the poor conditions of the soil. 

Gently water the rye seed and keep the soil consistently moist as it grows.

How to Harvest

Rye is ready to harvest as a cereal grain when it’s 12-18 inches tall. Don’t allow the grass to flower or volunteer rye seed will pop up all over your garden. Unless you are tilling the rye residue under to mitigate wind erosion, try to remove all parts of the rye plant leftover.

If you’re chopping and dropping cover crop rye, cut down the rye and till it into the soil. Harvesting is as easy as that!

If you’re feeding livestock or using the rye as mulch, chop down the rye as you normally would, but drop it where you want it rather than returning it to the soil. Larger plantings may require mechanical cultivation. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Rye cover crop
A rye cover crop prevents erosion, improves the soil and more. Source: Putneypics

Q: When should I cut my winter rye cover crop?

A: Cut mature rye when it’s 12-18 inches tall in early spring before it flowers.

Q: How late can you plant rye cover crop?

A: In hardiness zones 3-7, you can plant as late as mid-fall. In warmer climates, you can plant in mid-winter.

Q: How do you cover crop with rye grass?

A: You can broadcast the seeds at high seeding rates over a large area or plant them in strips between other crops. This provide weed management, and rye biomass gives your 

Q: Which is a better cover crop wheat or rye?

A: Wheat and rye are very similar cover crops that offer similar benefits. Wheat is better suited for warm climates, while rye is better for cool climates. Both provide complete weed control when sown at the rate of a ground cover.

Q: Does winter rye come back every year?

A: Rye won’t come back every year unless it drops seeds and the seeds manage to stay there all year. Count on planting it every year since it’s an annual crop and not perennial.

Q: What is the difference between winter rye and ryegrass?

A: There isn’t much difference except that winter rye has bigger seeds than ryegrass and will allow you to easily broadcast the seeds evenly.

Related Categories
Products in this article