Cover Crops Improve Soil Health

Working cover crops into your crop rotation schedule will help clean the soil while fixing nutrients for better yields.

| July/August 2016

As gardeners, we know that the success of our edible and ornamental plants is directly related to the health of our soil. Some of us even believe that as gardeners, we nurture and grow soil every bit as much as we do plants. Our soil is one of our most valuable assets, and it needs to be protected. The best way to protect and improve our soil is by keeping it covered with crops, whether that’s crops we’re growing for food or cover crops.

At their most basic level, cover crops are exactly what they sound like: plants that cover the soil and reduce erosion and nutrient loss. Essentially, they are a living mulch.

The first time I used overwintered rye in my garden to prepare a new garden area, I became a believer in the wonderful benefit of using cover crops. I started experimenting with different varieties for different garden areas to mitigate specific issues. I planted daikon radishes to break up compacted soil, crimson clover to add a boost of nitrogen in my vegetable plot, mustard scrubbed my soil of disease before planting potatoes, and my favorite was buckwheat to suppress and control weeds in newly tilled garden areas.

If you have a small garden, you may think that cover crops aren’t for you. Most often, we see them used by farmers on a large scale and think large fields and large tillers and plows are needed. That’s not the case, however. Cover crops can be a valuable addition to your crop rotation schedule in any sized garden, even a square-foot garden.

Cover the basics

In small gardens, cover crops provide the same benefits that they do in a large agricultural setting. Some of their benefits include smothering weeds, mitigating disease and pests, reducing erosion, increasing moisture retention in the soil, enhancing nutrient availability, increasing beneficial micro-organisms, providing forage for animals, adding organic matter, and attracting and providing nectar for pollinators. These wonderful crops can also save the home gardener money by decreasing fertilizer costs and increasing yields. No matter what size garden you have, cover crops are worth adding to your crop rotation schedule.

At the very least, you should be planting a cover crop in your edible garden plot during the fallow season, which is winter in most areas of the country. A fallow season can also constitute 20 to 30 days between crop harvest and planting of the next crop. When utilized during the off-season, cover crops will reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss. By and large, this is their most valuable benefit, especially in our edible garden areas. We work hard to grow our soil, so don’t let the wind blow it away or the rain carry it off. Cover crops are the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way of minimizing soil and nutrient erosion. If chosen properly, a fall-planted cover crop can also provide you with a weed-free planting bed in the spring. That’s definitely something every gardener can get excited about!

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