Summer Soil Building Crop Options for Delmarva Vegetable Growers

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

Where possible, vegetable growers should consider the use of summer soil building crops. This can be between spring and fall crops, prior to mid-season plantings or anytime there is about 6-8 weeks of fallow time. Use of these summer soil improving crops can help maintain or increase organic matter levels, address certain soil disease issues (fungal pathogens, nematodes), add nitrogen to the soil (in the case of legumes), reduce weed pressure, and improve soil physical characteristics.

The following are some soil building crops for summer use that I recommend:


Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata)
Also known as blackeye or southern pea, this crop is underutilized in our area. It is fast growing with peak biomass often in 60 days. Cowpeas can fix up to 100 lbs of N per acre with biomass of 3000-4000 lbs/a. Cowpeas grow well in poor soils and can handle droughty conditions. Drill at 40-50 lbs per acre. Certain varieties such as California Blackeye #5 and Mississippi Silver are poor nematode hosts and will be beneficial in systems where root knot nematode is a problem. See this site for nematode ratings of different cowpea varieties Cowpeas also can be harvested in the immature pod stage as a fresh legume so can serve dual purpose in small farms.

Soybean can also be a good cover crop drilled at 60 lbs per acre. Forage-type soybeans produce considerable biomass and make excellent cover crops. For nematode suppression, use of root knot nematode resistant varieties may be beneficial. Edamame types can be harvested and sold in green pod stage and the residue returned to the soil for soil building, again serving a dual purpose on small farms.

Sunnhemp (Crotalaria juncea)
Sunnhemp is a tropical legume that is used extensively for soil building in countries such as Brazil and India. Drill 20-30 lbs of seed per acre. Sunhemp can produce very high amounts of biomass (10 ton biomass is not unheard of in Florida – amounts will be lower here on Delmarva, expect 3-4 tons). It is a high nitrogen fixing legume and can contribute over 100 lbs of N to a following crop. Sunhemp grows very fast in the summer, reaching 6 feet or taller in 8 weeks. However, a better way to manage sunnhemp is to let it grow to about 1-3 feet tall, then mow it and let it regrow again. If allowed to get too tall and old the stems will become tough and fibrous and will not decompose rapidly. Sunnhemp is a day length sensitive crop. It will grow any time during the summer, however it will not flower and go to seed until the days start getting shorter in very late summer.

Non Legumes

Sudangrass and Sorghum-Sudangrass hybrids (Sorghum bicolor x S. sudanense)
Sudangrass is a forage crop in the Sorghum family. Sorghum-sudangrass is a cross between forage or grain sorghum and sudangrass. These are warm-season annual grasses that grow well in hot conditions and produces a large amount of biomass. Plant at 20-40 lbs per acre drilled. Of all the non-legumes, it is the most useful for soil building. Sorghum-sudangrass will often reach 6 ft in height. Like sunnhemp, it can be mowed and allowed to regrow to enhance biomass production and have younger material that decomposes more quickly. Expect 3-4 tons of biomass addition per acre. As a grass, to get the most growth you will need to add nitrogen fertilizer (40-80 lbs/a). If incorporated at a young stage, the nitrogen will be re-released for the following crop. Sorghum-sudangrass is very effective at suppressing weeds and has been shown to have allelopathic and biofumigant properties. Research on nematode suppression by sorghum-sudangrass is mixed with some studies showing that sorgum-sudangrass suppresses nematode levels. Choose finer stemmed, leafy varieties when available. Brown midrib types will decompose more quickly because they have less lignin.

Forage-type Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum)
Pearl millet is a tall summer annual grass that grows 4 to 8 ft. tall. It is well adapted to sandy and/or infertile soils and does well in the summer heat. Forage types are better adapted for soil improvement than the grain types. Seed at 20-30 lbs/a drilled. Expect 3-4 tons of biomass addition per acre. Again, as a grass, to get the most growth you will need to add nitrogen fertilizer (40-80 lbs/a). Pearl millet has been shown to suppress some nematodes. Forage pearl millet can make a good mulch for late-summer planted crops no-till or strip till.

All these crops above can be planted from late May through late July for soil improvement use.

There are many other possibilities for summer soil improving including several other millets, brassicas, and buckwheat, however the ones listed above are my recommendations for growers on Delmarva to try.