Cover Crops – Not Just for Farmers

Buckwheat growing where beans used to be planted.

Buckwheat growing where beans used to be planted.

We gardeners demand a lot from our (often) small gardens. We keep much of the garden planted for most of the season, never giving the soil a break except for winter. Vegetable crops are heavy feeders and take a lot of nutrients out of the soil. Most of us take time each season to add mulch, compost and manure to return nutrients to the soil. There is one more thing you can add to your bag of soil fertility tricks – cover crops.

Planting cover crops is a great way to not only build soil fertility, but also to attract beneficial insects to your garden and grow your own green manure (plants grown specifically for their organic matter and ability to improve the soil). They also cover bare soil and help suppress weeds. One of my favorite things about fall cover crops is as the rest of the garden is turning brown the cover crops are joyously green and alive long into fall. I love looking out at them and tricking myself that winter isn’t coming!

There are lots of cover crops and many of them are designed for farming systems where they will be tilled in with a tractor. The three I like to recommend for the home garden are buckwheat, oats and peas. All three winter kill and won’t regrow in your garden in the spring. Honey bees and many other insects love the buckwheat flower. It’s a fast grower and pulls phosphorus from deep within the soil. It is not frost tolerant, so it’s best planted after the last frost in spring or by the end of summer for a fall crop. An oats and pea mix will fix nitrogen and supply a lot of organic matter. They work well together because the peas climb up the oats, a grass. Both peas and oats are frost hardy and will survive well into the fall and early winter. They are best planted in early spring and early fall.

Oats and peas.

Oats and peas.

This time of year as I am emptying my beds of summer plants, I immediately sow a cover crop. I loosen the soil, broadcast the seed on the bed, and then chop it in with a rake so the seeds are covered. I water it a few times until it germinates and once a week thereafter if it doesn’t rain. I leave it in my garden over the winter and come back in spring to find it serving as a light mulch on the soil. If the cover crop gets to full flower before being killed by frost I will yank it out, lay it on the soil and mulch with hay over it. (You don’t want it to re-seed into your garden.)

The healthier your soil – the happier the plants. By taking care of your garden soil you will ensure less work and more food out of your garden over the long term.

Organic cover crop seed is on sale for the month of September in my online store. Each bag comes with full instructions on planting and care. You can read more about it here.

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