Natural Nutrients: Planting Red Clover and Other Cover Crops

by on November 1, 2012Wilma Stordahl

planting red clover as a cover cropAs days become shorter and summer fades into fall, the bounty of your summer vegetable garden may wane, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to do. Planting red clover and other overwintering cover crops can help build the soil and replenish the nutrients in your garden naturally.

This week it’s time to talk about planting red clover and other legumes. I’ll give some red clover planting instructions and supply you with a list of winter cover crops. As always, if you have questions, be sure to ask.

Why Planting Red Clover and Other Cover Crops Matters

If you have been following our series of urban agriculture articles, take note. If you are growing your own food, you want it to be as packed full of nutrients as possible. However, the nutrients in your food are only as great as the nutrients in the soil in which it was grown. As each crop is harvested, nutrients are taken from the soil, so planting red clover and other cover crops is the best, organic way to replenish those nutrients and ensure the ongoing health of your soil.

Planting Red Clover and Other Legumes for Fixing Nitrogen

In an organic garden, planting red clover and other legume cover crops (beans, clovers, peas, vetches, and others) is important for fixing and providing nitrogen to the next crops. Look at the roots of any legume and you will see that they have nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots.

But what does it mean to “fix” nitrogen?

In our world of anti-bacterial products, we often forget that some bacteria are beneficial. Bacteria in the soil have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with legumes. Gaseous nitrogen in the soil, which would otherwise be unavailable to plants, is taken in by the bacteria and fed to the legumes. In return, the legumes provide the bacteria with carbohydrates.

The leaves and stems of nitrogen-fixing plants hold on to the nitrogen until the plants are turned under, mixed into the soil when it’s time to plant the next crop, or used as compost.

It’s a win-win-win for the bacteria, the legumes, and us.

Legume and Red Clover Planting Instructions

If you have poor quality soil, chances are the population of rhizobacteria (rhizo being Latin for “root”) will be too low to carry out all of the nitrogen fixing your garden needs. To maximize nitrogen fixation, inoculate the seeds with rhizobium before planting.

Packages of inoculant can be found in nurseries and lawn-and-garden stores. There are specific rhizobium for specific legumes, so be sure to read the package before you purchase, and make sure you are getting the appropriate rhizobacteria for your chosen legume cover crop.

Similar to working with yeast, rhizobacteria are living organisms, and timing is everything. The following legume and red clover planting instructions are important. Right before you are going to plant your seeds, coat them with inoculant by placing them in a container and wetting them with a bit of water or milk. Using approximately 1 heaping tablespoon to each half pound of seed, sprinkle the inoculant over the seeds.

The rhizobacteria are delicate and normally dwell underground, so they cannot survive ultraviolet exposure. Do not leave your inoculated legume seeds out in the sunlight or the rhizobacteria will die and your efforts will be wasted.

Sow your cover crop into your garden bed. Each cover crop has a specific broadcast rate (sowing rate) of number of seeds per 1,000 square feet. This information will be on the seed package. Follow it. There’s no sense in overdoing it.

In late winter or early spring, make sure you turn your cover crop into the soil before it has a chance to go to seed. Many cover crops, such as red clover and vetch, can become weeds in later crops if they are allowed to set seed.

Winter Cover Crop List

The following list of legume cover crops can be planted in garden beds that have been cleared in the fall, and they can overwinter until it’s time to turn the soil in the spring.

Botanical Name Common Name
Pisum arvense Austrian Field Pea
Pisum arvense Magnus Field Pea
Trifolium incarnatum Crimson Clover
Trifolium pratense Red Clover
Vicia faba Bell Beans/Fava Beans
Vicia dasycarpa Lana Vetch
Vicia sativa Common Vetch

 

As always, if you have any experience with planting red clover or other winter cover crops, we would like to benefit from your experience and expertise. Do you plant red clover? What has been your experience? Do you prefer other legume cover crops instead? Why?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

KT August 30, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Can I plant clover mix in Oct. and just let it grow instead of tilling it in?Will it become established and reseed itself so I can just mow it year after year?(I am only talking about less than half an acre.Could I mow a few times in summer with my rider mower to keep it low?)
Thanks -KT

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Hannah November 13, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I planted red clover as a cover crop in October and it sprouted. Did I plant it too early for it to overwinter successfully? I live in the Pacific Northwest, so we have relatively mild winters, but it will freeze and possibly snow.

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Wilma November 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm

October is best, but in the Pacific Northwest, cover crops can be sown until late November. Red clover is expected to sprout and grow though the winter. If it freezes, it’s not a big deal, because you can still till it into the soil and capture the nitrogen in the leaves and stems.

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