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 plan ahead, you will find that there are opportunities throughout the year to plant something that will benefit your soil.
Why Cover Crop?
Cover crops add “bio-available” nutrients to your soil. Legumes like Hairy Vetch, clover, or Austrian Winter Pea fix nitrogen from the air into their foliage. These make a nice slow-release “fertilizer” for your beds.
2. Weed Suppression
Some cover crops have weed suppression qualities, like oats and rye. This means they can out-compete the weeds. In the case of some cover crops, like Winter Rye, they can reduce weed seed germination while they decompose in situ. Having a cover crop over an area that might usually be bare in any season will be advantageous in suppressing weed dispersal for the next season by out-competing weeds that might otherwise take over there.
Planting cover crops improves water conservation because the plants increase organic matter in the soil. Organic matter holds water in times of dryness. Finally, cover crops cover the soil, preventing erosion by wind or rain, while minimizing any leaching of important nutrients out of the soil.
Specific Cover Crops and What They Do
I prefer to use Buckwheat during the midsummer lull when my spring crops are about done but I’m not ready to plant October beans yet. This year, I will plant Buckwheat in July to prepare a bed for when I want to plant strawberries in fall. Buckwheat germinates quickly, grows vigorously, and is easy to cut down in time to get in the next crop. It matures in 6-8 weeks. Any growth is helpful; turning under a bed of seedlings still has a benefit to your soil if you need to turn it over before the plants mature.
If you have time for buckwheat to bloom it is GREAT bee forage. In addition, it accumulates “bio-available” phosphorus and calcium. Those minerals 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. Other examples of great cover crops that are pollinator-friendly are Oilseed Sunflower and Crimson Clover.
Another way to cover crop is to seed garden pathways with Dutch White Clover. When you mow it down, you can use the clippings to mulch your beds. Dutch White Clover makes a good perennial ‘living mulch’ under fruit trees, shrubs or other perennials. Keep in mind that perennial cover crops also require some amount of control lest they out-compete your main crops!
In fall, as the main summer crops wind down, you can easily overseed legume/grass mixes that can germinate below your plants. When you remove your main crop, the cover crop can get established prior to the fall frost. These mixes add biomass and nitrogen in a nice balance that promotes the slow release of beneficial nutrients.
Our Fall Cover 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 Summer Cover Mix is a great crop for spring and can be mowed in the late summer prior to fall cover cropping.
How To Seed Cover Crops
Seeding cover crops in the home garden is easy. Broadcast the seed over lightly broken soil and rake in. Mix the seed in a bucket of dirt of sand to help the seed spread over a larger area. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate, 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, and hold in moisture better.
Remember, Don’t Garden Naked! Cover Crop! See our cover crop seed collection HERE.