Cover Crops for Your Garden
Cover crops are plants grown during the winter months when the garden beds are empty. These plants serve several purposes and are very beneficial.
History of Cover Crop Use
Cover crops date back to ancient civilizations. Legume cover crops improved the soil in the vineyards during the Roman Empire. Native Americans used cover crops to enhance the quality of food. The early Americans used cover crops as well. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington rotated cover crops into their fields of tobacco, wheat, and corn.
When synthetic fertilizers came on the scene in the 1950s, cover crops decreased in popularity. With more understanding of synthetic fertilizers’ impact on the earth, farmers and gardeners look to cover crops instead of these chemicals to enhance their plants.
Benefits of Using Cover Crops
Cover crops have many benefits, including:
- Prevent soil erosion
- Improve soil nutrients
- Decrease soil compaction
- Protect water quality
- Suppress weeds
- Add organic matter to the soil
- Manage pests
- Suppress diseases
- Provide habitat for beneficial insects
Prevent Soil Erosion
During the winter months, the bare ground withstands rainfall, snowfall, and wind. Erosion occurs when the earth can not hold on any longer.
Cover crops reduce the amount of soil erosion. The strong roots of the crop grasp the soil keeping it in place.
Cover crops provide an umbrella of sorts over the ground. This “umbrella” lessons the velocity of the rainfall causing it to seep down to the ground instead of pounding the ground.
Improve Soil Nutrients
Cover crops add nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is a macronutrient that leaches out of the ground with rainwater and watering in general. The cover crops store the nitrogen they obtain from the air in their roots.
Once tilled into the soil, the nitrogen from the cover crops becomes available for the plants sown in the spring and summer.
Decrease Soil Compaction
Soil compaction involves layers of particles tightly pressed together, preventing roots from penetrating deeply into the ground. Cover crops decrease the amount of compaction that can occur when a bed is left empty.
The deep roots of the crops penetrate the soil to keep the soil loose. The areas in the ground remaining once a cover crop dies have pores where new roots can grow and spread.
Protect Water Quality
Because cover crops add nitrogen to the soil, the use of synthetic fertilizers reduces. The fewer synthetic fertilizers and the less rain runoff, water quality improves.
Cover crops also play a role in managing pests and weeds. With this management comes the use of fewer insecticides and herbicides. The fewer insecticides and herbicides equal greater water quality.
Having the ground covered in crops creates a blanket that weeds can’t penetrate. Planting cover crops keeps the soil protected from the insurgence of weeds.
Cover crops produce allelochemicals. These allelochemicals suppress seed germination in weeds. Once tilled into the ground, the allelochemicals continue working to control weeds.
Add Organic Matter to the Soil
Cutting down cover crops adds organic matter to the soil. The cut cover crops decompose on the surface of the ground allowing the nutrients to seep down into the layers of the dirt. Tilling cover crops into the soil increases nutrients as well. Green manure refers to this method of adding organic matter to the soil.
Some cover crops release toxins that harm fungi and insects. Other means of managing pests include changing the crop in the bed or field. Pests like to stick with their preferred plant (i.e., tomatoes, squash, etc.). When cover crops occupy the preferred plant space, the pests find another host and leave the area.
Cover crops also attract beneficial insects that kill unwanted pests.
Tilled cover crops add nutrients to the soil. This addition of nutrients then promotes healthy plant growth. These plants resist diseases that would otherwise kill the plant.
By being a rotated crop, a cover crop also prevents diseases from staying around in the soil. The disease does not have its host plant to latch onto, so it dies.
Provide Habitat for Beneficial Insects
Cover crops attract pollinators. These beneficial insects hang around your garden or field and become a part of the environment. Other beneficial insects flock to the cover crops to eat the natural pests.
Types of Cover Crops
Legumes are a popular cover crop. And then there are non-legume cover crops.
- Hairy vetch
- Red clover
- Sweet clover
- White clover
- Annual ryegrass
- Cereal rye
- Forage radish
- Oilseed radish
- Tillage radish
- Japanese millet
How to Plant Cover Crops
Most cover crops are planted in the winter months when portions of the garden beds are bare. You can also plant cover crops in between rows during the growing seasons.
To plant the cover crops, throw the seed over the desired area. Then rake the soil and pat the site down—water in the seed. Be sure to cut your cover crops down before they go to seed. If not, the cover crops will reseed, and your garden plants will be fighting against them.
To remove the cover crops, either mow or knock them down with a string trimmer. Then incorporate them into the soil. To use the cover crops as mulch, pull them up by hand and lay them on the soil’s surface. They will decompose, gradually enhancing the soil.
Are you going to add cover crops to your garden this fall?
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I’ve always loved gardening and recently started gardening full-time. I also enjoy tending to our chickens, dogs, and other family pets (a bird, a snake, and rabbits).