Discussions of building soil and soil health always come around to cover cropping. Cover cropping is a fantastic and underutilized tool in the home garden. As you begin to harvest spring beets or your broccoli you’ll see that there are spaces left behind where nothing grows for a while. These spaces are your opportunity to grow your own soil amendments. If you think ahead you will see that there are several opportunities through the year when you can plant something that will benefit your soil.
Cover crops add bio-available nutrients to your soil. Legumes like vetch, clover or Austrian pea fix nitrogen from the air into their foliage making a nice slow-release ‘fertilizer’ for your beds. Other cover crops have weed suppression qualities; they out-compete the weeds, but also Winter Rye reduces weed seed germination while it decomposes in situ. Water conservation is improved when you use cover crops because they increase the organic matter in your soil; organic matter holds water in times of dryness. Finally, cover crops COVER the soil, conserving soil by preventing erosion from wind or rain and by preventing the leaching of important nutrients out of the soil.
I have a preference for buckwheat during the midsummer lull when perhaps your lettuce finishes up but you aren’t ready to plant your October beans yet. This year, I will plant buckwheat in July preparing a bed for fall planted strawberries. Buckwheat germinates quickly, grows vigorously and is easy to cut down in time to get in the next crop. It can mature in 4-6 weeks. But any growth is helpful; turning under a bed of seedlings still has a benefit to your soil. If you have time for buckwheat to bloom it is GREAT bee forage. In addition, it accumulates bio available Phosporous and Calcium in its leaves that then will be available to your crops as the cover crop decomposes. You don’t want buckwheat to go to seed though, because it could become a weed. Cut it down and till it in before it sets viable seeds.
Another way to cover crop is to seed garden pathways in Dutch White Clover, then mowing and using the cuttings among your beds. Dutch White Clover makes a good perennial ‘living mulch’ under fruit trees, shrubs or other perennials. Of course, these kinds of perennial cover crops also require some amount of control lest they out-compete your favorites!
In fall as the main summer crops wind down you can easily overseed legume-grass mixes that can germinate below your plants and then when the peppers or tomatoes are removed the crop can get established prior to the frosts of fall. These mixes add biomass and nitrogen contributed by the legumes in a nice balance that will promote the kind of decomposition that slowly releases nutrients to your crops when their time comes.
Our Fall Soil Builder Mix is great for overseeding. Try to seed fall cover crops about 40 days prior to your average first frost date. Raking in the seed lightly between plants will help set the seed and aid in germination. Our Spring Soil Builder is a great crop for spring and can be mowed in the late summer prior to fall cropping.
Seeding cover crops in the home garden is easy. Scatter the seed over lightly broken soil and rake in. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate and then watch the magic. You may want to lightly scatter straw over a cover crop that has just been sown. It can help hide the seeds from foraging birds.
Remember, Don’t Garden Naked! Cover Crop! See our cover crop seed collection HERE.
Written by Sow True Seed blogger Megan Schneider.