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Plant a cover crop before the rain arrives

Q: Can I still plant a cover crop?

Ralf, San Luis Obispo

A: A cover crop has two planting seasons. When planting in fall or early winter, the cover crop needs to be cut and composted in early spring. Otherwise, the plant will use the stored nitrogen for its own seed production. It is a somewhat frightening sight when looking over your garden beds in the spring and realizing that your rye crop is up to your chest.

Mustard, when sown in March or April, will shoot up past the tallest member in your family in just a few months. A timely tilling or mowing of these fast growing crops is a must do!

Red clover is a spring cover crop that won’t give you that trouble. The clover is often used as an interplant to protect small seedlings like lettuce in the spring and to attract beneficials with its showy blooms. Other cover crop choices, including buckwheat, phacelia, fava beans, bell beans, mustard and vetch, do double duty as nitrogen fixers, bio mass providers, and of course their ability to attract many beneficial insects to your garden.

With the impending heavy rains, it is important to have cover on the ground. Cover crop perennials are great if you want to provide structure and avoid erosion. It is easy and fun to plant cover crop seed. If you are using a legume rich mix, (40-60 percent) make sure you inoculate the seeds before planting. This will increase the sprouting rate of legumes such as peas or beans. Follow the instructions on the inoculant bag; a good dusting with the powder will do the trick.

Prepare the planting area by using a rake and running the tines through the soil. Then sow in the grooves by dribbling the seed in. I like to over seed to increase my chances for a high percentage of germination. After seeding, cover the seed with soil, then gently press the soil down over the seed. A 2x4 board works well to tamp down the soil. Mother Nature should be cooperating this year to keep the soil moist.

Once the cover crop is ankle high, start turning it under in the beds you want to use for early planting.

Got a gardening question?

In San Luis Obispo call 781-5939, Arroyo Grande, 473-7190 and Templeton, 434-4105. Visit us at http://ucanr.org/sites/mgslo/ or email us at anrmgslo@ucanr.edu. Follow us on Instagram at slo_mgs and like us on Facebook. Informative garden workshops are held the third Saturday of every month, 10 a.m. to noon at 2156 Sierra Way, San Luis Obispo. Garden docents are available after the workshop until 1 p.m. To request a tour of the garden, call 781-5939.