Cover crops aren’t just for professional growers. They are also vital for a nutrient-rich home garden. Year after year, vegetables pull vital nutrients from the soil without putting anything back for the years to come. Cover crops are meant to solve this problem by natural and organic processes. Because they act as a living mulch, the soil isn’t lost to erosion, splashing, and winds associated with a bare winter garden.
Adding extra soil, fertilizer, compost, or mulch every few years can add up quickly, not to mention the labor involved. Simply keeping the ground covered with a cover crop is the answer to perpetual soil loss and overworked land. By using a cover crop mix, the natural benefits of organic mulches, manures, and compost can be enjoyed while saving a few bucks and forgoing the backbreaking work of transporting such materials. Additionally, cover crop root systems help stabilize soil in raised beds, plots, and open gardens all year long, preventing erosion during the winter and spring runoff seasons.
The first step to accessing these benefits is finding the right cover crop seeds that match the needs of the soil. Start by understanding what the growing space is like. Feel the soil. Is it hard with clay? Or have the plants been yellow, weak, or overtaken by weeds? Use the tried-and-true method of growing cover crops to restore and revitalize spent garden soil. For nutrient needs, try planting a legume such as peas or clover to add nitrogen back into the soil. Legumes are known for transforming nitrogen from the air into a usable form for plants in the soil via root nodules. These are processing centers for beneficial bacteria that place nitrogen directly into the root zone of upcoming crops.
For hard soils, add winter rye to help break up compact clay loams. Use grains or grasses like rye, barley, wheat, or triticale to increase the rich, dark organic matter in dry and poor soil. Organic matter is key to developing healthy, fertile soils that are able to supply nutrients to plants, retain moisture, and drain excess water properly. For the best pest control benefits cover crops have to offer, plant brassicas such as mustard and radishes. Cover crops have so many great benefits, but one of the most favored is weed suppression. Simply having something over the soil during the off-season can prevent pesky and aggressive weeds from taking over home gardens.
After identifying what the soil needs and selecting the seeds that will help improve it, find out when the local first and last frost dates are. When planting a fall cover crop, broadcast the seeds when the temperatures start decreasing from the heat of the summer. Then, lightly rake the seeds in to maintain contact with the moist soil. Allow enough time, based on the life cycle of the chosen seeds, to germinate and grow several inches. Cut, mow, or till cover crops around the time of the first fall frost. Over the winter season, the plant matter will break down and create new soil with beneficial nutrients right where plants can use it in the coming seasons.
In the spring, wait to plant until just after the last spring frost. Like a fall cover crop, allow several weeks to develop healthy growth before terminating. Again, cut, mow, or till at least 2-3 weeks before starting a garden for the season. It takes at least this long for the plant material to decompose, making nutrients available for the current growing season. Be sure to take note if the crops selected are perennials or annuals. Perennial crops that are allowed to go to seed may spring volunteers throughout the growing season. To terminate these crops, it is important to disrupt the root systems. Mowing may not be enough, especially for crops such as clover that are commonly mowed and paired with traditional lawn grasses.
Growing a mix of various seeds is best to enjoy all of the benefits a cover crop can offer. Here at True Leaf Market, a garden cover crop mix can be found that includes 4 legumes to increase nutrients, 3 hardy grains for biomass and erosion prevention, radish to break up hard soils, collard for organic matter, and yellow mustard for pest management. This mix can be used as either a spring or fall cover crop. Be sure to cut the cover crop before it goes to seed. Not doing so will result in volunteers popping up during the main growing season.
To get started with cover crops, try a mix like this one. Then, learn more about these plants and how to take charge of the garden and long-term soil health for years. To get better acquainted with the many options available as cover crops, walk through a trusted cover crop guide to understand what plants can be used, when to plant them, and how they are used in the garden setting.
Learning about cover crops can seem overwhelming at first. Just remember, this is the same practice that has been used to maintain healthy land to sustain civilizations for centuries. It isn’t about following some new practice; it’s about going back to the roots and preserving the existing land. Gardening can seem like a never-ending knot of confusion with different opinions and practices being touted as the best. Don’t get tied up in the mess. Gardening can be simple, just stick to the practices that have been tried and true for century after century.
The takeaway here is that soil is the ultimate source of a wonderful and productive garden. To protect it during the off-season and prepare for the growing season, use a cover crop to reduce soil erosion, increase nutrients for the coming seasons, and improve soil quality. The process starts by identifying how the soil can be improved, then broadcast the chosen cover crop seed, lightly raking the seed into the soil, watering, growing, cutting, or mowing, then allowing the garden to rest for 2-3 weeks before planting in the spring. Follow these simple steps to guarantee a successful garden all year long. Garden the natural way with cover crops. Learn more: www.trueleafmarket.com
About the author: Ashleigh Smith is the managing editor at True Leaf Market, with a bachelor’s degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University – Idaho. Authentic Leaf Market is a nationally certified organic, non-GMO seed and horticultural company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The True Leaf Market staff specializes in supplying a large selection of conventional, heirloom, and organic seeds to home gardeners everywhere. Learn more: www.trueleafmarket.com.