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    Why Every Gardener Should Grow Cover Crops

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    Why Every Gardener Should Grow Cover Crops

    As gardeners, we pay close attention to our beds during the growing season. But what about during the colder months?

    After your last fall harvest, do you leave your beds bare? You could be missing out on the chance to introduce valuable nutrients to your soil. And worse yet, you could be giving pesky weeds the opportunity to take root in your garden.

    The answer to this problem is to plant cover crops. Also called green manure crops, cover crops are fast-growing grasses, grains, legumes, or brassicas that grow during the late fall and winterand improve the overall health of your garden. In this article, we’ll explore how and why every gardener should grow cover crops.

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    Benefits of cover crops

    As their name implies, a cover crop “covers” the soil of the garden at a time when it would typically be bare, usually beginning in the late summer or early for vegetable gardens.Cover crops help sustain soil life and boost soil nutrients until spring planting time.

    These inexpensive, low- to no-maintenance crops grow during the fall and winter, and then you can work them under the soil in the spring. Planting cover crops is not a new gardening or farming concept. The practice just fell somewhat out of favor beginning in the mid-20th century as new synthetic fertilizers became popular.

    While they are growing, cover crops offer benefits to the garden. Here are the main ones:

    • Their roots help reduce or prevent erosion.
    • Their growth loosens and breaks up the soil, thereby reducing soil compaction and allowing better air circulation and water penetration.
    • They eliminate bare spots where weeds can take root and become firmly established.
    • Cover crops help absorb excess nutrients in the soil.
    • The plants help support a healthy ecosystem, helping to feed earthworms, fungi, and other organisms over the winter.
    • Cover crops add visual interest to your garden during the off-season.
    • Some cover crops attract and feed helpful pollinators.
    • When you turn them over in the spring, the crops add essential nutrients to the soil.

    How to Know What Cover Crops to Plant

    Just like with other plants you grow in your garden, the type of cover crop you grow depends on your environment and climate. Check out this chart from almanac.com to see what works best in your geographic region.

    Another factor to consider is the type of soil you have and the nutrients you want to replenish.

    For example, if you want to replenish nitrogen in your soil, clover and soybeansaddnitrogen to the soil in a form that your plants can absorb.

    If you want to loosen compacted soil, planting oats or barley will help break up tight soil and make it easier to till.

    Cover crops fall into two main types: legumes and non-legumes. Legumes absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that plants can use. Legumes can help reduce the need to add nitrogen to your soil.

    Here are some examples of legumes and non-legumes that work well as cover crops.

    Legumes

    • Crimson clover
    • Field peas
    • Soybeans
    • Hairy vetch
    • White clover

    Non-legumes

    • Buckwheat
    • Oats
    • Barley
    • Winter rye
    • Tilling radish
    • Winter wheat
    • Marigolds

    Many gardeners have had success planting a mixture of legumes and non-legumes for the best results. You can purchase these types of seed mixes at your garden center or online. Here are a few examples of cover crop seed blends.

    How to plant cover crops

    Your first step in planting a cover crop begins in the late summer or early fall. You’ll want to allow a minimum of four weeks to get the seeds established before cold weather sets in.

    Remove weeds and all large debris from your harvested garden area and then rake it smooth. Next, sow the cover crop seeds, following the directions on your seed packets for correct broadcast rates. Generally speaking, winter cover crops have a broadcast rate of two to three pounds per 1,000 square feet.

    Water the newly planted seeds with a fine mist. You may want to use a complete fertilizer (10-10-10), or if you are growing only legumes, a lower nitrogen fertilizer (5-10-10) may be a better choice.

    Keep in mind that you can plant your covers crops one at a time as you complete your vegetable harvest. For example, hardy winter rye can germinate in temperatures as low as 35°F.

    You’ll want to turn your cover crops under a minimum of two to three weeks before spring planting. This amount of time allows the organic matterto decompose. When you postpone planting your spring crop until after this period, your gardencan gain the full benefits of nitrogen and organic matter that cover crops offer.

    Here’s a word of caution. Do not allow any flowering cover crops to go to seed. Instead, turn flowering plants under when only one-third of the plants are flowering. At this point, they will provide the nutrients to the soil without seeding it.

    And here’s another tip. Consider the wildlife that lives in your area when choosing cover crops. For example, deer will be attracted to clover and other legumes. You may want to keep a journal of what works and what doesn’t so you can keep improving the results you get with your cover crops next year.

    Would you like to learn more about cover crops? Here is a list of helpful resources.

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