Cover crops might just be the best thing for your garden you’re not doing, but should be. Curious what a cover crop is, why you should be planting them and when? Read on for more info on this natural way to replenish your garden, reduce weeds and keep your garden looking great in the offseason.
What is a Cover Crop?
Cover crops are anything planted for the purpose of replenishing your garden and not for the purpose of harvesting. These plants cover your soil, die and decay all without producing anything you would want to pick or consume. A good cover crop will be hearty, have an extensive root system and require little water. Depending on the time of year and your geographic location, some cover crops will do better than others, but here is a list of common cover crops:
Why Plant Cover Crops?
As I said above, cover crops are the 1 thing you’re probably not doing to your garden that you should be. So why should you start planting cover crops? In short, because it will make your garden better–a lot better. There are 3 primary benefits of planting cover crops: improved soil, reduced weeds & pests and a better looking garden
Cover crops are planted and grown specifically so that they will die without being harvested. When that happens, the crop will decompose and add nutrients to the soil. This process is similar to amending your soil with compost but has the added benefit of taking up space that is otherwise unused. Planting cover crops before and after you plant your main crops will help ensure your soil is as robust as possible, leading to bigger yield and better vegetables.
Reduced Weeds & Pests
As any homeowner knows, open areas of soil are a standing invitation to unwanted weeds. Planting cover crops in the offseason can help fight weeds, making your job easier come spring. In addition to fighting weeds, many cover crops, like rye, can help fight nematodes. While others, like crimson clover, will attract pollinators.
Better Looking Garden
We all love how our gardens look from the time the first seedlings sprout all the way to when our tomatoes are juicy and plump, ready for picking. But after that final harvest? Depending on where you live, you may be looking at 6 months of nothing but dirt. Removing dead plant material and replacing it with new crops will help your garden look beautiful for much longer. Hardy cover crops like hairy vetch and winter rye will stick around through winter and resume growth in early spring.
When Should I Plant Cover Crops?
Cover crops are planted before you plant and after you harvest your primary crops. When exactly you plant them depends on what you’re planting and why. For most gardeners in the US, you’ll want to consider 1 or 2 plantings of cover crops per year. In late fall (after harvest but before hard frost), plant a cover crop with enough time to reach maturity before the winter sets in. Crops will die (or go dormant), adding nutrients to the soil. Planting another cover crop in early spring will further nourish your soil before planting primary crops. Just make sure to leave enough time to grow the cover crop before you need to plant your primary crops.
Most universities with agricultural programs will have advice on specific cover crops that do well in your region. Check the website of the agricultural school nearest to you for advice on what cover crops to plant when to best advantage your garden.
Cover crops offer a lot of advantages and will take your gardening to the next level. But, as with all crops, do your research before jumping in and make sure you plan appropriately to get the most impact out of your efforts.