Winter Wheat Planting

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

Winter Wheat

Winter Wheat

Winter wheat is a cool-season grain that germinates quickly in autumn’s chilly soils. Planting winter wheat ensures your garden will be supplied with fresh organic matter just in time for next year’s planting.

Photo by: Shutterstock/Serhiy Shullye

Shutterstock/Serhiy Shullye

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.

10 Winter-Friendly Plants Your Outdoor Space

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Japanese Yew

Commonly grown in North America and Eastern Asia, Japanese yew is an excellent fit for porches all year round since it's drought tolerant and thrives in both full and partial sun settings. Known to survive exceptionally harsh winters, the Japanese yew is popularly used as groundcover; however, when grown as a tree, it can reach more than 50 feet in height.

Potted Blue Spruce

The Colorado blue spruce is one of the most iconic evergreens associated with holiday decorating. Commonly raised as Christmas trees, it must have full sunlight to thrive and also requires a great deal of watering. If used as a potted accent, add a hole for proper drainage. It's also recommended to lay a sponge directly over the drainage hole to help hold moisture.

Boxwood Hedge

Popular with garden designers worldwide, boxwood hedge is perfect for use as topiary. It requires full sun to grow, so it's best fit for placement in front of a porch or patio rather than inside a shade-covered outdoor area.

Cypress Topiary

Similar to boxwood hedge, potted cypress works well as topiary. For the best growth possible, place potted cypress in an area that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. As far as watering is concerned, cypress can rot easily if oversaturated, so it's best to water in the morning to allow for proper evaporation before the sun fades.

Thread-Branch Cypress

Known for its golden-yellow foliage, thread-branch cypress can add great texture to an outdoor space during the winter. In addition to its unique coloring, this sun-loving evergreen takes an interesting shape as its thread-like needles "weep" downward. When planted in the ground, thread-branch cypress can grow as big as six-by-eight-feet tall. Whether it's being used in a container or planted in the ground, this cypress will need full sun to thrive.

Brown's Yew

Characterized by extremely slow growth and a natural, globe-like shape, Brown's yew is an evergreen shrub that requires watering twice a week and exposure to full or partial sun.

Winter Gem Boxwood

Perfectly fit for small hedges when planted in multiples, Winter Gem boxwood also works well potted in planters. During the winter, this evergreen will take on a golden bronze coloring, then change back to bright green in the spring. Winter Gem boxwood thrives in both partial and full sun settings.


Ligustrum is an evergreen native to Japan which is commonly grown for ornamental use in California, Texas and throughout the Southeastern United States. Popular with homeowners in urban and rural settings, Ligustrum thrives in full sun and partial shade and adapts to different types of soil.

English Boxwood

A perfect fit for topiary and container gardening, English boxwood is a small evergreen shrub known for slow growth and yellow-green coloring on its leaves. At full maturity, this shrub will reach two feet in width and height. Like most shrubs, it simply requires watering twice a week and full sun exposure.

Wheeler's Dwarf Japanese Mock Orange

Best used as groundcover, Wheeler's Dwarf Japanese Mock Orange is known for producing small scented flowers with orange coloring. When grown in partial to full sun, the groundcover can reach three feet in height and five feet in width.

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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