Using Cover Crops in Your Garden

Amazingly useful cover crops enhance soil health and provide pest and weed control. Choose the right one for your garden.

| January/February 2014

To grow healthy plants that produce bountiful harvests, we need fertile soil and a vibrant growing environment. One of the best ways we can create this environment is by using cover crops. Planted at strategic times throughout the year, cover crops are plants we grow to feed our soil rather than our bodies. For instance, planting a quick crop of buckwheat between summer and fall crops adds nutrients to the soil and provides protection from harsh summer sun. The many varieties of cover crops can suit the needs of nearly any garden. Knowing which crops serve which purposes can unlock benefits for any garden.

Why Plant Cover Crops?

• Leguminous cover crops “fix” nitrogen in the soil. An essential mineral necessary for vigorous plant growth, nitrogen is usually depleted over the course of a season. Legumes are able to absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere through a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria called Rhizobium. Once these plants are incorporated back into the soil at the end of their growing period, the nitrogen is converted into a form usable by subsequent plants. 

• Cover crops add vital organic matter, increasing biological activity and humus in the soil. When cover crops are “turned into” the soil (cut down and incorporated into the soil) the residue breaks down, quickly or slowly depending on the structure of its fibers. Quick decomposers cause an increase in microbes that can lead to stronger plant growth and disease prevention, decreasing reliance on pesticides and fertilizers. Slow decomposers can add to the soil’s structure and water-holding capacity.

• Cover crops offer great weed control. Tall varieties such as sudangrass can be used to shade out weeds because of their height. Varieties such as clover and rye overtake and smother weeds.

• Cover crops aerate soil. If compaction is an issue in your garden, cover crops with deep root systems able to penetrate these soils create a looser environment for the harvest crops that grow afterward. If heavy clay is the issue, building up organic matter will increase air and water movement.

• Cover crops hold soil in place, beneficial where erosion is a problem. Through a strengthening network of roots and leaf and stalk growth, soil is protected from rain and runoff.

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