What are cover crops?
Cover crops are crops that are used to protect and improve the health of soil! They can be used in gardens, cropland, pastures, and lawns to achieve several different soil improvement goals. Protecting the soil from erosion, increasing organic matter, attracting pollinators, aerating the soil, and improving microbial health within the soil are just some of the many benefits that cover crops can have on your soil. Examples of common cover crops include winter rye, clover, hairy vetch, buckwheat, and spring oats.
When do you plant cover crops?
Cover crops can be planted at different times of the year, depending on what your goals are. Most commonly, they are planted in the fall following the harvest of the main growing season. They can also be planted in early spring to protect the soil before planting your crops, or in the summer to improve an area that you do not plan on using that season. It all comes down to what your plans are for that cover crop.
What are the best cover crops for gardens?
There are a lot of different cover crops that you can use in your garden, depending on what your goals are. If you want to protect the soil from erosion throughout the winter, winter rye is a great grassy option that will give good coverage. If you want to naturally increase the nitrogen in your soil, clover, hairy vetch, and winter peas are some great options. If you are not planning to use your garden for a growing season, using a warm season cover crop such as buckwheat not only protects the soil but also will attract pollinators and draw important nutrients to the soil surface.
Is clover a good cover crop?
Clover can make a great cover crop, but there are a few key factors to keep in mind when considering its use. There are both annual and perennial clovers which should be a key part of your decision. One of the most common options, White Dutch clover is a perennial that is commonly used in lawns and pastures. Crimson clover, an annual, is the perfect option for use in the garden, during the cooler season, or between planted rows. Either way, if you know your plan for the clover, it can be a great option for improving soil health.
Can you use cover crops in raised beds?
Of course! Using cover crops in raised beds will still help to protect the soil and add valuable organic matter. Although raised beds do not necessarily receive the same amount of erosion pressure as in-ground gardens, it is still a good idea to protect the surface when you are not using your space. Using cover crops in raised beds still allows you to add organic matter and valuable nutrients back into your garden soil without having to continually add bagged soils. Cover crops commonly used in raised beds include winter rye, hairy vetch, and winter peas!
Are cover crops good for pollinators?
Yes! Certain cover crops are well known for having the added benefit of attracting beneficial pollinators. Cover crops such as clover, hairy vetch, and buckwheat are all well-known for their colorful blooms that draw in birds, butterflies, bees, and many other pollinator species. Creating pollinator habitats is a crucial part of maintaining healthy ecosystems!
How do cover crops increase organic matter?
There are a few ways in which cover crops can increase the organic matter of your soil. If you choose to grow an annual cover crop and let it die back and work that matter into the soil, this process adds high levels of organic matter. Another option is if you are growing a cover crop and then removing the above-ground foliage, as the roots left in the soil degrade, they create organic matter as well. Organic matter can increase the microbial life in your soil and makes water and nutrients more available for your plants!
How do cover crops add nutrients to the soil?
Cover crops are amazing in the sense that they can both add nutrients into the soil, but also make nutrients that are already in the soil more available for plants to use. Legumes such as clover, hairy vetch, and winter peas all have the unique ability to capture atmospheric nitrogen and make it available for plants in the soil. Another example would be the long taproots of buckwheat having the unique ability to draw unavailable phosphorus closer to the soil surface, making it more available for primary crops.
Why are cover crops important?
Cover crops are important for several reasons including that they protect and build the health of soils. Healthy soil is a key part of growing healthy food, including vegetables, row crops, grain, and livestock. As a key part of all the food we produce, keeping our soils healthy is extremely important which in turn makes cover crops an amazing tool. Cover crops can also prevent the need for pesticides in some situations which is an added benefit, as pesticides are costly and can be harmful to soils.
What are the pros and cons of using cover crops?
Although there are a lot of pros to using cover crops, there are also some cons, or challenges to watch out for. If you plant a cover crop in the fall that does not winter kill, such as a perennial or winter rye, you must have a plan for eradicating the cover in the spring before planting. Whether you decide to mow, till, apply an herbicide, or crimp the cover crop into the soil, it is important to have a plan. Cover crops also create some added steps in the sense that you must prepare for planting and eradication, but in the end, the pros typically outweigh the cons.
What is the most popular cover crop?
Winter rye is probably the most used cover crop in both gardens and on cropland. Winter rye is easy to establish, and it creates a strong cover that protects the soil in the fall, winter, and early spring before planting. Another popular cover option is tillage radishes, often referred to as groundhog radishes. These extremely long-rooted radishes provide a strong cover above the soil, add organic matter, and provide aeration in the soil! Although there are so many cover crop options, these two are the most common.
Why are cover crop mixes beneficial?
Planting multiple species of cover crops in a mix has many benefits. Mixing cover crops not only gives you the chance to reap the benefits of several different types of cover crops at the same time, but it also helps to ensure your success. When planting a mix, there is the possibility that one species will thrive, and another will struggle given your soil and climate conditions. If you plant multiple species, it leads to a higher chance of success!