Winter Cover Crops for Farm, Yard or City Garden.

On the farm, we do all the work by hand; no tractors, no plows, no till.  Our crew includes interns, volunteer kids from down the dirt road, city cousins and some well trained farm animals.  But we  also use plants to do lots of work. All year long, cover crops do the tilling, pest control, soil stabilization and a lot of fertilization on our little farm.  And in the gardens we make for city clients in Charleston, Columbia and Aiken.

At the end of this essay, you can see pictures of the cool season plants  that are working right now.  Each pic is accompanied by a note about their job in working the soil.

ALL of these plants will work for you too; farm, yard, or city.  In zone 7 or warmer, cool season cover crops started in October normally make little tufts of green all winter.  But with this warm winter, our cool season working plants grow like crazy. So we’re doing a lot of plant management right now.

We chop, mulch, mow and let the donkeys munch the plants— just to keep things from getting too big.  Yep, the donkeys actually do work around here.  When we borrowed them, about 12 years ago, we thought the donkey’s duty would be to protect the goats. The goats had been our mowers until coyotes came.IMG_4395

We consulted a nearby dwarf donkey expert, Miss Wall, from down the dirt road.  She said we needed a donkey for sure.  Donkeys hate dogs and coyotes; they just do. Farmers use them to chase off the  cyotes.  She also said, ‘I just love them too much to sell them to you.  But you can borrow two. Two, because donkeys like company.”

Hmm; I had to consider the deal.  You know, when you borrow something you just oughta’ have a clear understanding of things.  In case of a little fender-bender.  Or what if I spilled a glass of red wine on the white one?   I’ll feel compelled to fix the spots before I return them…..

“Now don’ you worry ’bout that sort of thing.” she said. “I know your Momma.  I’ll stop by every once in a while to check up on them.”   Her son seemed to do a lot of the farm work, stood by, waist deep in donkeys.  He looked at me like it would be a big help if we’d take two off his hands.

So, we brought home our pair of borrowed donkeys.  With one concession; she’d let me change the name of the female. I just couldn’t see myself standing at the gate yelling, ‘Pretty Baby, Pretty Baby, come get your hay.”

It’s a good thing they eat all the cover crops because it turns out, these are defective donkeys.  They didn’t protect goats.  In fact, they chased the goats and ran the mowing-machine goats right out the pasture.  Into the jaws of the coyotes. With no where to go the billy and his harem moved onto the front porch. And this was a problem because billy goats stink.  It’s a smell they cultivate, want to share and waft right across the porch and into the front hall.  Otherwise, goats near the house are OK.  One called Martha Brown took to standing on an old church pew on the porch, peering into the living room window every evening when it was time for Jeopardy.  Comfortable and with decent tv, but as far as goats go, the porch is not very safe.  The coyotes picked them off one by one.

Let’s make it a true daily double Alex, “What is a defective donkey?”

At least they keep the fields mown.

Winter cover crops are proven to work.  This is old technology that we understand better than ever.   Native American gardeners employed them, hippy communes too.  The long term benefits are described in a 1911 classic book titled Farmer’s For Forty Centuries; Permanent Agriculture; Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan. 

Winter cover crops work on our small organic nursery, on massive farming scale and in any backyard garden.

   (Click here to download a pdf copy of the entire book)

For more about how we use covercrops year round on our organic nursery, please read Deep Rooted Wisdom; Stories and Lessons from Generations of Gardeners.


  1. Debby West on December 27, 2015 at 7:16 am

    I love reading about your farm, farm animals, neighbor’s, friends & memories. I am sorry for your goats. Farming with animals has some difficult challenges I am not sure this city gal could handle. Thank you for writing this enjoyable & informative article. I will incorporate & plant some good working plants this week for my winter garden based on your information in your article. Merry Christmas to you & your family!

    • Jenks Farmer on December 27, 2015 at 7:57 am

      I saw on youtube that some city people keep dwarf donkeys and house train them and such. Not for you? Well, come see and enjoy the farm for a day in springtime….

  2. Jenks Farmer on December 27, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    This post is from my buddy Andy who used to come and camp on our farm in the winter….
    Jenks, I can’t seem to post my response on your blog essay. Here it is:

    Up here in Massachusetts the fields planted with cover crops (sorry to say, but I don’t know what they are planted with) are glowing in an electric emerald green. 68 on Christmas eve is not the usual holiday temperatures around here, but no one seems to be complaining.

    I have had some conversations with Jenks’ donkeys, most of them taking place late at night:

    “Alright, alright,” I said, “what the heck are you donkeys up to?”
    “Oh we’re just sorting through this scrap heap of old metal parts,” they said.
    “Don’t you think it might be a little late for this sort of thing?” I asked.
    “Don’t tell us our business, you yankee interloper!” they brayed.
    Chastised, I watched them in the moonlight for a while. Maybe the middle of the night is the best time for sorting through things, I thought. Then I crawled back in my tent.

    Happy holidays!

  3. Nadia on December 28, 2015 at 3:32 am

    I’ve been smiling as I read this whole post, Jenks. It’s so charming.
    But is there a way to use cover crops in an ornamental garden?
    I’m hoping winter returns!

    • Jenks Farmer on December 28, 2015 at 6:20 am

      Nadia, I use them in lots of gardens with slight variations. It’s more situational — you find a small spot where it works mixed into existing plantings. Oats is good for that. Or if its a garden where you cut everything, just sow; sometimes you have to changes the plants; these still do work; just don’t remove the plants as they dry. Of course, clover is beautiful; saw a killer planting of it in the UTKnoxville garden. Here’s a post on seeding in.

  4. John Ira Clemens Jr on December 28, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    Sounds like the Oats with the 6 foot root system would be good for my Riverbank. Would they get along with my Crinums?

    • Jenks Farmer on December 28, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      They work fine together BUT this is a winter annual — you might need something perennial. Normally, you couldn’t seed them this late but given the weather….

  5. Tricia on December 29, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    Where is the ‘like’ icon?
    Thank you!

    • Jenks Farmer on December 30, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks! Wow, a like icon is a bit more than I figure out…

Leave a Comment