Cover Crops: Not Just for Farmers

While ordering seeds over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed offerings for cover crop seed. Until recently, I just ignored them because I figured they were for farmers and people with large fields – to keep those acres of land from laying fallow all winter. Then I started getting frustrated with my few empty beds (between plantings) because the soil would get hard and dry and sandy. I decided to cover my empty beds this summer with grass clippings, and that helped tremendously. That’s when I thought I should take a second look at cover crops and did some online research. It seems I was very mistaken in thinking cover crops are not for home gardeners or homesteaders because cover crops can benefit even raised beds and small garden plots. 

WHAT IS A COVER CROP?

Basically, a cover crop is a non-cash crop (non-use crop) whose sole purpose is to protect and enrich the soil between plantings of a cash/use crop. Some people call cover crops “green manure.”

BENEFITS OF PLANTING COVER CROPS:

When you see the benefits of planting cover crops, you’ll realize – as I did – that they’re NOT just for large fields and career farmers.

  • Prevents nitrogen from leaching from the soil. The cover crop takes up nitrogen while growing, then gives it back when it’s turned under. (Legumes actually fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil while growing.)
  • Suppresses weeds
  • Builds healthy soil by adding organic matter (when turned under)
  • Helps control pests and diseases by increasing beneficial micro-organisms in the soil
  • Prevents erosion
  • Reduces soil crusting
  • Breaks up hard soil
  • Encourages beneficial insects

GENERAL COVER CROP PLANTING INFORMATION:

Here are some general instructions for planting cover crops. Be sure to follow specific guidelines for the particular cover crop you choose to grow.

Generally, if you’re planting cover crops for the winter, plant them at least four weeks before the first fall frost so they have time to get established before it gets too cold. Work your soil with a garden rake, broadcast the seed, then lightly rake in (so the birds don’t eat your seed).

The only care you’ll have to give your cover crop is to water when it’s very dry, and to mow or cut the crop to keep it manageable. When planting in a raised bed, you can use hedge clippers or a trimmer to cut the crop, if you want to cut down on the height.

The most important thing is to kill the cover crop BEFORE IT SETS SEED! Can you believe I’m saying that? Yes, kill a crop. Otherwise, you’ll have that crop growing among your vegetables in the spring! When the plant begins to flower or when the seedheads emerge on grains, it’s time to say goodbye. To kill the crop, cut it down at the base of the plants so it won’t grow any more, and leave the cuttings on the soil to dry.

Let the leaves, stems, and roots die and turn brown before you turn it under, into the soil. Before turning it, if you “inoculate” the organic matter with compost tea, it will reduce the time it takes to decompose. Once you’ve turned the cover crop under, you must wait at least three weeks before you can plant your new crop in that soil.

Buckwheat Photo credit: www.wikimedia.org

Buckwheat
Photo credit: http://www.wikimedia.org

TYPES OF COVER CROPS:

Although this list is not exhaustive, it will give you an idea of the types of plants used as cover crops. Your decision on the type of crop to use should take into consideration your zone, what season you wish to plant it, and your soil’s needs. Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply/Grow Organic has a great Cover Crop Solution Chart you can use to help you with your decision making.

  • CLOVER: There are several varieties of clover you can plant, all of which are legumes that fix nitrogen into the soil. There’s White Dutch, which is a “living mulch” and tolerates shade and traffic. Crimson clover attracts beneficial insects. I ordered Red Double-Cut clover. As with other legumes, the clover seed must be inoculated with the correct innoculant. You can inoculate it yourself, or you can purchase inoculated seed (like I did).
  • HAIRY VETCH: Also a legume, hairy vetch is the hardiest annual and tolerates poor soil. Its flowers draw bees. Because it matures late, it is often planted with cereal rye or oats.
  • RYE: There are two types of rye that can be planted: cereal rye and annual rye. Cereal rye is cold tolerant and is often called winter rye. It’s planted in late summer/early fall, will grow until late fall then will resume growth in the spring. Annual rye dies in the winter, especially in zones 1-5, so you won’t have to kill it later.
  • BUCKWHEAT: This is a great smother crop because its leafy leaves and fast growth are effective against weeds. Planted in the spring or early summer, buckwheat matures in six to eight weeks with flowers that attract beneficial insects. Be careful not to let it go to seed – else you’ll be growing buckwheat all season!
  • FIELD PEAS & OATS: In late summer/early fall, you can plant field peas together with oats. The peas are legumes, fixing nitrogen into the soil, and will grow up the oats, which will add organic matter into the soil. Both are cold tolerant, though they will die in colder zones.
  • SORGHUM-SUDAN GRASSES: This hybrid is high in organic matter. It will grow five to twelve feet tall if not mowed or cut, but will have increased root growth if cut once or twice before frost. The large root system is great for loosening hard soil. Because it’s frost tender, plant this grass at least seven weeks before the first frost.

GOOD COVER CROP SEED SOURCES FOR GARDENERS AND HOMESTEADERS:

We home gardeners and homesteaders don’t need to buy huge amounts of cover crop seed, so where do we get smaller amounts? Check your local feed and seed stores, as they may sell you smaller quantities. Here are a few online sources, too:

My clover seed is on the way, and I’m looking forward to seeing the difference planting a cover crop will make in my raised beds. As always, I’ll keep you posted on the results.

Meanwhile, let me know if YOU have decided to plant cover crops this year.

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