How to Use Cover Crops in the Garden
Did you know that many cover crops that are meant for winter garden protection are planted beginning in August? Yep. It’s time to start planning out what cover crop seeds you need to buy and where you are going to buy them (this is where I buy my seeds).
What are Cover Crops?
A cover crop is just what it sounds like: a crop that covers the soil of your garden during the off-season. While your garden soil is lying dormant, cover crops can prevent your precious dirt from becoming unproductive.
Cover crops take very little labor while adding organic material to your soil. Certain cover crops will boost your garden soil with nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and/or many other important nutrients. They also help prevent weeds from taking over your garden, since they spread out nice and thick.
When you are ready to use your garden plot again, you can give the edible cover crops to your livestock or simply use a garden fork (like this) and turn the cover crops into the soil. They will decompose in your soil and give you even MORE nutrients.
To have the absolute best garden soil for your next spring, here’s how you should prepare your garden in the fall: Spread your compost (learn how to make your own compost here) in the garden beds and plant cover crops in them. In the spring, use proper crop rotation guide strategies in your garden and then turn the cover crops into the soil.
There are many types of cover crops to choose from and it can be overwhelming. You should pick them based on your climate, what will be planted in that location next season (see: crop rotation guide for suggestions), and the specific characteristics of each type of cover crop (can you feed it to livestock, etc.). There are 2 basic types of cover crops: legumes (which boost your nitrogen levels) and non-legumes (which enriches your soil long-term)
Here are some popular Cover Crop options:
1. Annual Ryegrass:
Annual Ryegrass is a popular cover crop since grasses are more effective at controlling weeds than legume cover crops. While grasses do NOT increase nitrogen in the soil (like legume cover crops), they DO help with erosion issues as well as weed prevention. Annual Ryegrass is one of the most winter-hardy cover crops. You can plant annual rye grass in the fall or spring. They are very fast growing in cool seasons. If you want them for winter, plant them in early fall or late summer. Then, in the spring, trap the nutrients by cutting the rye grass and turning it into the soil. It is a great companion to the Crimson Clover Cover Crop (mentioned below).
Buckwheat is an interesting non-legume cover crop because it is sensitive to cold. It is the best cover crop for spring, summer, and fall. This is an excellent cover crop for any empty regions in your garden (like when your early spring radishes are done, but you aren’t filling the space with fall crops for a few months yet). Buckwheat keeps the weeds away as well as having flowers that are very attractive to pollinators. It’s also edible: it makes excellent animal fodder (I’ll be feeding some to my rabbits, and I have heard chickens like it too) AND you can eat it too! Ever heard of buckwheat pancakes? 🙂 It only takes about 40 days to plant, bloom, and incorporate into the soil, so it’s a quick warm-weather cover crop option.
3. Crimson Clover:
Crimson Clover is a legume cover crop that not only keeps weeds at bay but also fixes nitrogen issues in the soil. It is one of the most beautiful cover crops you can grow, with stunning red flowers in the spring. Plant it in the fall and till it into the soil in late spring. Apparently, Crimson Clover is a favorite of earthworms and you will often attract many earthworms to your plot of Crimson Clover. Since earthworms are wonderful for your garden, it’s a great added bonus. Crimson Clover works great when paired with Annual Rye.
4. Fava Beans:
Fava Bean plants are a relative to Hairy Vetch and are a legume cover crop. They produce tall bushy plants with fragrant flowers. Sow them in early fall for a late fall harvest, or plant in late fall for a spring harvest. Fava beans can be fed to poultry and livestock as well as turned into the soil. As a legume cover crop, fava beans help with boosting the nitrogen in the soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and preventing weeds. The fragrant flowers are also an attraction for bees and other pollinating insects. Buy seeds here
5. Hairy Vetch:
Hairy Vetch is a legume cover crop that helps boost nitrogen levels in the soil. Vetch also helps prevent erosion and has pretty purple flowers in the early spring that the bees love . It does well in cold and dry conditions as well as a variety of soil types. Plant hairy vetch in late summer or early fall, or up to about 30 days before your first frost date, and till it under in the spring. Wait until at least 50% of the plants have flowered before tilling it.
6. Winter Peas:
Winter Peas are a very cold-hardy legume cover crop. This would be a great one in colder regions! One thing I find intriguing about this cover crop is that the plant has shoots come out from it and you can eat the shoots throughout the winter. Plant it 6-8 weeks before your first frost date. Harvest the shoots when they are 6-8 inches tall. The shoots supposedly taste like peas. Like all legume cover crops, Winter Peas add lots of nitrogen to your soil, as well as preventing soil erosion and keeping weeds at bay. In the spring, they provide pretty pink flowers that attract pollinators. They also are a vine-type cover crop, and the vines will become a mat-like mulch. Winter peas are a great livestock/poultry fodder choice. It’s nice that while other plants are dying in the winter, your winter peas are green and vibrant. Your livestock will thank you (note: deer love it too!).
7. Winter Rye:
Winter Rye is a wonderful non-legume cover crop, especially for places with harsh winters. It is great at controlling erosion, suppressing weeds, and adding nutrients to your soil. Winter Rye has a wonderful root system that makes it one of the best cover crops for improving your soil. It is also great for livestock grazing. Sow anytime from August through October. It grows very quickly. Plow it into your soil in the spring.
8. Winter Wheat:
This grain cover crop helps improve your soil, reduce weeds, and prevent erosion. Winter Wheat germinates easily and develops quickly compared to some of the other cover crops. Plant it between September through early December. Your livestock will love you for this cover crop too!
What Cover Crops will YOU be growing this year? I’d love to know about your garden!
2015 fall: I am going to be planting Hairy Vetch, Winter Peas, and Winter Rye. Here’s hoping my garden gets strong and healthy! I will be planting them in half of my raised beds and using my other raised beds to grow my fall garden.