Cover Crops Improve Soil Health

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

  • As a legume, crimson clover provides a valuable nitrogen source for the crops that follow.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Garden beds with a winter rye cover crop.
    Photo by Terry Wild Stock
  • The author’s pigs rooting up a cover crop.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Mustard is at the top of my list when it comes to favorite cover crops to use in a small setting.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Mowing the crop with a scythe.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Winter rye after being tilled into the soil.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Mixed cover crops on a new garden area.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Sorghum-sudangrass is a soil builder as well as a weed and nematode suppressor. It’s great for adding organic matter to vegetable gardens and rebuilding worn-out soils.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Mustard in small beds.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Buckwheat is very effective at suppressing weeds because of its quick growth.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Oilseed radish. With its very large taproot that can reach up to 6 feet deep, this is a star at breaking up hardpan soil and increasing water absorption in compacted soil.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Red clover is especially useful when overwintered as a nitrogen source for early planted brassicas that are heavy feeders.
    Photo by Susy Morris
  • Winter Rye. This is perhaps one of the best cover crops if you have a way to incorporate it into the soil.
    Photo by Susy Morris

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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