Winter Wheat Planting

Put your vegetable garden to bed with a cover crop—and it will wake up next spring with better soil.

Wheat in Palm

Wheat in Palm

©2010, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2010, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Tackle winter wheat planting to put your vegetable garden on a soil improvement course. Cover crops are called green manures because, like manure, they add organic matter and nutrition to soil. Planting winter wheat ensures your garden will be supplied with fresh organic matter just in time for next year’s planting.

Winter wheat is a cool-season grain that germinates quickly in autumn’s chilly soils. It’s also known as pastry wheat. Plants fill in fast, leaving little elbow room for both perennial and annual cool-season weeds, including henbit, chickweed or North Carolina geranium. Planting winter wheat blankets your garden with a living ground cover that insulates soil and helps it retain nutrients that might otherwise leach from bare soil exposed to winter snow and rain.

Cover crops are also instrumental in preventing soil erosion. A winter wheat planting, in particular, excels at anchoring soil, thanks to its extensive and deep, fibrous root system. Winter wheat’s root system helps prevent soil compaction and improves soil aeration, which fosters healthy populations of soil microbes and beneficial organisms.

Winter wheat plantings help recover soil fertility by essentially dredging up nitrogen and other nutrients that have leached into deep soil layers. As winter wheat grows, roots absorb these nutrients and move them internally toward their aboveground leaves. Tilling winter wheat into soil in spring places these nutrients in the root zone of new vegetable plantings.

Standard gardening advice is to get cover crops into the garden as soon as everything else is out. Aim to do your winter wheat planting from September to October, depending on where you garden. In warmer zones, planting dates will be later; in colder regions, early fall dates are the norm. Check with your local extension office to discover the ideal time for your area.

Winter wheat seed germinates quickly in cool soil, provided it’s fertile and not acidic with a low pH. Also avoid planting winter wheat in soggy soil; seeds won’t germinate. Plants grow fast in the right conditions, and you’ll see a pretty field of green before hard freezes arrive. Eventually as temperatures sink lower and lower, winter wheat goes dormant until spring, when warm air and soil coax plants out of the soil.

In terms of care, don’t overlook watering winter wheat during periods of drought. If plants grow quickly enough, you might have to mow several times. In small planting areas, use a string trimmer or scythe to trim winter wheat.

In spring, plan to till winter wheat into the soil before plants set seed. Cut it first, and let stems lie for a few days to start drying. Dry stems are easier to till into soil. After tilling winter wheat under, you’ll have to wait two to three weeks before planting vegetables. The waiting period is for two reasons. First, you want winter wheat to start decomposing and releasing its nutrients into soil. Second, winter wheat possesses a trait known as allelopathy, which inhibits seed germination. Allelopathic characteristics can also inhibit vegetable seeds from germinating.

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