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Undercover: Why Cover Crops are so Important

Aug 1, 2023 | Gardening Tips, Sustainability | 0 comments

By Jade Greene

Bare soil does not exist in nature… Why should it in your garden or local farm? It shouldn’t! Cover crops are the answer to keeping soil healthy and fertile. Learn more about cover crops and how you can plant them in your garden!

 

What is cover cropping?

Cover crops are plants that are not harvested and are planted to restore and protect the health of the soil. Also called “green manure,” their entire function is to cover the soil and help renew the soil after a season of use. They add organic matter and nutrients (especially if they are a legume which fixes nitrogen) to soil and prevent erosion! Win win! 

Some common cover crops used by local farms include winter rye, vetch, clover, oats, buckwheat, field beans and peas.

Why is cover cropping important?

Cover crops are an important part of organic farming, providing numerous benefits, including:

  • Prevent erosion – the crops’ roots help hold soil in place, preventing it from blowing away or running off during rain storms
  • They add essential organic matter to soil – organic matter helps soils retain moisture, help plants be able to uptake nutrients, and more!
  • Many cover crops fix nitrogen – plants in the legume family can add the vital nutrient nitrogen to soils in a form that next year’s plants will be able to uptake
  • They assist the soil biome from macroinvertebrates like worms down to micro-organisms which are essential for healthy soil
  • Provide food and shelter for beneficial insects and pollinators 
  • Help inhibit weed growth – weeds love to grow in bare soil. Establishing cover crops helps prevent weeds from getting a foothold
  • Prevent compaction of soil – cover crop root system create pores in soil, which is good for soil texture and organisms living in the soil
  • Climate change mitigation – deep rooted cover crops, such as little bluestem, can sequester carbon

 

Like I said, win win right?

Cover crops prevent erosion and can fix nitrogen (the nodules in the pictured roots)

Compacted soil

Who should plant cover crops?

Everyone! Cover cropping has been an important technique that almost all our local, organic farmers have employed for many seasons, but all home gardens should too!

 

How do I plant and care for cover crops in my home garden?

In general, cover crops need about 4 weeks before a fall frost to get established. So aim to get your cover crop planted by mid-September (last year’s first frost was October 12). You can purchase cover crops from a seed catalog, or even use grocery store dried beans! Did you know you can use dried beans as cover crops? Lentils and black eyed peas work wonderfully! Since both are legumes, they fix nitrogen and add the important nutrient back to your soil. 

Sprinkle/sow seeds in your garden, water, and let the plants do all the work.

In the springtime, when you are getting your beds ready, you can simply “chop and drop” the cover crop and leave the plants in the bed, or add them to your compost pile. Cover with mulch.

 

Now is the time to start planning your cover crop, mid-September will be here before you know it. Let us know how cover cropping works in your garden this year!

Image: Cover crops mix in raised garden beds. Credit: WSU.edu

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