Preview: Growing cover crops can benefit your garden in many ways. This post shares what plants make good cover crops and why you should grow them.
Why Grow Cover Crops
Many people think growing cover crops is only for large-scale farmers. However, there are so many reasons that growing cover crops is a good idea for the backyard gardener too.
- Cover crops help manage soil erosion. It’s like a living mulch. Planting something in the garden helps keep rainwater from washing away the soil.
- They replace nutrients that are lost each year and can actually increase soil fertility, especially if the cover crop is high in nitrogen. This can increase your harvests in your backyard garden the next season.
- Cover crops help control weeds by growing densely and shading out weed seeds so they can’t germinate.
- They provide a habitat for wildlife, especially when grown in the winter months.
- Some cover crops can even control diseases and pests by releasing phytochemicals into the soil.
- The roots of some cover crops can help break up packed soil like clay soil or soil that has been repeatedly walked on.
- Almost all cover crops add organic matter to the soil if they are tilled back in or chopped up and allowed to decompose.
- Many cover crops produce flowers and these flowers can be an early source of food for the bees in the spring.
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Best Cover Crops for the Home Gardener
There are several types of cover crops that can be grown in the home garden. Legumes, clover, winter rye, buckwheat, and vetch are just a few. There are also a few surprising crops that grow well as cover crops.
Any type of legume (bean) is usually a good choice for a cover crop because they help fix nitrogen in the soil. The majority of summer crops need lots of nitrogen to produce well. However, if you are planting your cover crops in the fall, you need to choose a legume variety that will overwinter well.
Fava beans are a good cover crop that will tolerate wet soils. They can be sown in the fall in areas that don’t receive extreme cold. (Favas are winter hardy to 10 degrees.) In colder areas, they can be planted in the spring.
Peas also make a good cover crop to plant in late summer for a fall harvest or in early spring. You can harvest the peas to eat and cut the plants down, chop them up, and turn them into the soil. Or you can leave them on top of the soil as a mulch.
Many types of clovers make great cover crops and they are also a good crop that will help fix nitrogen in the soil. Clover is also a good choice to help break up compacted or clay soil. Be sure to choose a annual variety of clover, like Crimson Clover, if you plan on planting your garden in the same area next year. There are several types of clover that are biennials which means they need to be left to grow for more than a year.
Winter rye is usually planted in the fall about a month before the ground freezes. It is a great choice to prevent soil erosion. Be sure you choose annual rye grass, not a perennial rye. Rye is good for helping break up heavy soils
Buckwheat is a quick cover crop to grow. From the initial sowing of the seeds to cutting it down, it only takes 5-6 weeks. The buckwheat in the picture above is only 5 weeks old. Notice it is already flowering. And once it starts flowering, its time to cut it to the ground. If you don’t cut it back, you’ll have buckwheat everywhere as it readily re-seeds.
Buckwheat is a good choice for late summer or early fall planting. It does need consistent moisture to germinate. Buckwheat prevents soil erosion and suppresses weeds. It also helps fix nutrients in the soil and can be tucked in bare areas and provide benefits to your garden soil in just a few short weeks.
Hairy vetch is often recommended as a cover crop for northern climates as it is frost tolerant. Vetch helps fix nitrogen in the soil. It should be planted in late summer several weeks before the ground freezes. Cut the plants (or till them under) a few weeks before you plan to plant your garden in the spring or before it starts flowering. Be careful with this cover crop though. In the south, it can quickly become a very invasive crop.
I’ve never planted vetch, but it comes up voluntarily every spring in my flower beds and it can be aggravating to get out.
A Few Surprising Cover Crops
Arugula is a perfect cover crop for a small backyard or kitchen garden. It is easy to sow and easy to grow, and while it won’t provide all the benefits of some other cover crops, you do get food from this one! Arugula will prevent soil erosion and suppress weeds while providing the start of delicious (yet spicy) salad.
Daikon Radishes are great for helping break up hard soil. Daikon radishes are long radishes (Not the typical round ones you see in the grocery store.) with roots that go deep in the ground. These long roots also help to pull nutrients from deep in the soil up to the surface where they are more readily available for other vegetables to utilize. Radishes are easy to grow and you can eat the radishes you plant as cover crops. For more information on growing radishes, check out this post.
Most of these cover crops are suitable for raised beds and even containers. After reading this post, if you aren’t sure what type of cover crop to grow, many stores sell pre-made mixtures that you can purchase.
How to Grow Cover Crops
Most cover crops are planted after the summer harvest, though some are planted in an area that will be left fallow in the spring. If you have a garden area that won’t be planted in vegetables, it is a good idea to plant a cover crop to prevent weeds from taking over and the soil from eroding. (Soybeans make a good summer cover crop.)
Most cover crops should be cut back (or tilled under) BEFORE the plant goes to seed. Usually once the plants start flowering, it’s time to get this task accomplished. Once the crop goes to seed, it can become a problem by sprouting each year among your vegetables and flowers.
So even though planting cover crops can seem like a task for large gardens and farms, there are so many reasons that they benefit backyard gardens too. Most are easy to plant and very low maintenance. Have you ever planted a cover crop? If not, would you now?