Why Use Cover Crops
Cover crops are a low-cost, low-maintenance way to improve the soil in your garden and give you bigger and healthier harvests. Cover crops can be included in your annual garden plan, and many cover crops can be planted in the fall. I wish I had discovered cover crops sooner, and I want to share my experience and favorite resources on how to use cover crops in the garden.
Five Reasons for Using Cover Crops in Your Garden
Cover crops serve many purposes in the garden, and here are the reasons I decided to include them in my garden plan.
- Suppress weeds
- Add nutrients to the soil
- Improve the soil structure
- Prevent erosion from rain and wind
- Can be used as mulch to maintain moisture
Multi-Purpose – How to Use Cover Crops in the Garden
One of the principles I try to keep in mind as we plan and grow our homestead is the multi-purpose principle. This means trying to utilize things that serve more than one purpose. A simple example of this might be growing comfrey – comfrey provides medicine, mulch, feed for our rabbits, and attracts pollinators.
Using cover crops in the garden, I started with winter rye. My first cover crop of winter rye is also multi-purpose. Winter rye grows even in cold weather, and during the fall and winter after planting, I was able to continuously harvest the green leaves to supplement our rabbit’s winter feed. The rye’s extensive roots improve the soil texture. After cutting the rye, the stalks are left in place to create a mulch to suppress weeds during spring. And finally, the decomposing roots and stalks add precious nutrients back into the soil.
Easy to Grow
Most cover crops are easy to grow and require little care to maintain. Last fall I spread a mix of winter rye with hairy vetch, and they sprouted and grew all winter long with no attention from me. Some cover crops require mowing or cutting to kill them (like the winter rye), but other crops can be planted and winter-killed, depending on your local hardiness zone.
Getting Started with Cover Crops In the Garden
Probably the two biggest challenges in using cover crops in the garden are space and planning. Cover crops require time to grow, kill, and decompose. To make the most of starting with cover crops, you will want to:
- Decide on the timing for your cover crop. Do you want a winter cover crop that won’t interfere with your spring and summer gardening? Do you want to plant a spring cover crop and use the bed later for fall vegetable growing?
- Once you decide on your timing, plan your garden accordingly. You will be giving up precious garden space to allow for your cover crop. If you practice crop rotation, consider adding cover crops to your rotation.
- Choose which cover crops to use. This website has great information on the types of cover crops and the best seasons to use them.
Further Resources for Improving Your Soil
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education has a list of cover crop varieties and best seasons to use them.