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Maintaining soil health is one of the most important things you can do to help your garden thrive and the best way to improve the health of your soil is to plant cover crops.
The best cover crops you can plant in your garden are alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, clover, daikon radish, fava beans, vetch, oats, rye, and sorghum. If this seems like an overwhelming amount of options, you can also buy cover crop mixes to grow a little of everything.
Keep reading to learn more about each of these cover crops and how they can benefit your garden. I’ll also go over how to terminate cover crops and how much seed you should expect to use.
What are cover crops and why are they important?
Cover crops are crops that you plant after your vegetable production is done for the year and they’re generally not for consumption. Although, some people do harvest certain cover crops like grain to turn into flours and such.
There are many different kinds of cover crops but most fall under one of four categories: grasses, grains, brassicas, or legumes.
Cover crops are incredibly beneficial to maintaining your garden’s ecosystem and can significantly improve your soil’s health. They also can provide habitat for beneficial insect species and give them a place to overwinter.
Cover crops provide an extra layer of protection to your soil over the winter so that it doesn’t remain exposed for months. Exposed soil is much more susceptible to erosion and compaction leaving you with less good workable soil.
Cover crops also provide crucial macro-nutrients to the soil. For example, many cover crops recover and recycle phosphorus, a key nutrient in fruit production in plants. Similarly, leguminous plants are essential for returning nitrogen to the soil through the process of nitrogen fixation.
Nitrogen is a nutrient that is essential to the health of a plant. But, it’s not readily available in the soil and therefore needs to be added.
Some people like to add nitrogen manually through the application of fertilizers. But, some plants, like legumes, have the amazing ability to pull nitrogen right out of the air and put it back into the soil. This is called nitrogen fixation. Pretty cool, right?
How to terminate cover crops
Cover crops are generally grown for just a couple of months or until you’re ready to plant your garden again. But some can stay in the ground for up to a year.
Once you’re ready to start planting in your garden again, you need to remove the cover crops that are there. There are several different ways to do this:
Turning over cover crops
The most common way to get rid of cover crops is to turn them over in some way. Many people prefer to till their cover crops into the ground because it’s quick and easy. But, if you’re a no-till gardener like myself, you may want to try using a broadfork, digging fork or a roller-crimper.
Broadforking your cover-cropped beds will essentially do what a tiller would do but it doesn’t disturb the topsoil nearly as much.
Roller-crimpers are cool because they roll over your cover crops and “crimp” their stems to kill them, leaving you with lots of great organic matter and weed suppressants right on top of your beds.
Most roller-crimpers on the market are big, industrial-sized tools. But there are a lot of great roller-crimpers out there for small, home gardeners too.
Cutting cover crops
Another quick and easy method to eliminate your cover crop is to simply chop it back. This can be done using a weed-whacker, lawn mower, or a simple wheel-hoe.
Having your cover crop chopped up into pieces also helps speed up the decomposition process so that you’re able to get your garden beds planted sooner.
Solarizing cover crops
This method I’m less familiar with but I have seen some gardeners do it with much success. Similar to how you may solarize a part of your garden with plastic or with a tarp to kill back any grass and weeds, the same can be done to cover crops.
Winter-terminating cover crops
Some cover crops, like oats, sorghum, and field peas will do the work for you and die back in the winter leaving you with a nice ground cover and fresh organic matter.
With all cover crops, just make sure to terminate them before they go to seed or you might find that the cover crops you planted actually become a weed in your garden.
How much cover crop should you seed?
Cover crops should be planted pretty heavily. You want it to be dense enough to cover and protect the soil surface. Make sure to distribute the seed evenly over bare soil areas. Using a rake can help you to get a good even spread and work the seeds into the soil a bit so they’re not just sitting on the surface.
Most seed packets and catalogs will tell you how much you should plant per 1,000 square feet. For most cover crops, 1 pound of seed is more than enough to cover small home garden beds.
The 11 best cover crops for your garden
Figuring out what cover crop is the best for your garden can be difficult if you don’t know where to start. Every garden is different and has different needs. But, to help you out, here’s my top ten list of the best cover crops for the home garden.
This legume is a great option to add more nitrogen to your soil. Certain varieties of alfalfa can also grow considerably large tap roots making them great at breaking up compacted soil.
Alfalfa needs warmer temperatures to germinate so it’s best to sow the seeds in spring or early summer and terminate it in the fall.
This is a good option if you have a garden bed that needs some extra TLC to bring the soil back to life. But keep in mind, because this cover crop is grown in the summer, your garden bed will be out of commission for veggie planting that season.
Barley is a grain that also has a deep fibrous root system that helps bring nutrients up to the surface of the soil where they will be more readily available to other plants.
Barley is a hardy crop that can be planted in the fall and terminated in early spring. If you’re looking for a summer cover crop, barley can also be planted in the spring and turned in the fall. It’s drought tolerant so those of you in drier climates should have no problem growing barley.
Another grain, buckwheat is a great cover crop if you’re looking for a quick turn-around. Buckwheat can be planted in late spring to early summer and terminated just a month after germination.
Buckwheat is not hardy so cold weather will kill it. If you’re looking for a winter kill cover crop, then planting buckwheat in the fall may work better for you.
When it comes to growing clover, you have a couple of options: red, crimson, and white. Crimson clover is the most popular option because it grows more quickly than its red and white counterparts.
Alternatively, white clover tends to be a little hardier and can withstand colder temperatures. The best time to sow clover is in the fall and terminate it in the spring or sow in the spring and terminate in the fall.
Clover is a legume making it a good nitrogen fixer. The flowers are also pollinator attractors and aren’t too bad to look at either.
5.) Fava Beans
Also a nitrogen-fixing legume, fava beans prefer to grow in cooler weather and are quick growing. The best time to sow these beans is in early spring and terminate them in early summer or sow in late summer and terminate in the fall.
If you plant fava beans in early spring, you may also get a bean harvest out of them by the time summer rolls around. Fava beans look similar to lima beans but they have a much milder taste.
6.) Hairy Vetch
Vetch is a legume that can take some time to establish itself. But once established, vetch is quite hardy and can withstand significant cold weather. The best time to sow vetch is in early fall and then terminate in the spring.
With vetch, it’s important to terminate it before it goes to seed as it can easily become a pesky weed in your garden.
Oats are quick-growing grains that will be killed by cold weather. They’re the best option if erosion or soil loss are common problems in your garden.
The best time to sow them is in the spring for a summer termination. They can also be sown in the fall and left as a ground cover in the winter once they die back. Then, come springtime, the dead oats can be turned back into the soil.
Rye is an incredibly hardy grass that can withstand cold weather and is also drought tolerant. The best time to plant rye is in the fall for a spring termination. Rye is so hardy that it can be sown well into late fall.
Rye has a strong fibrous root system similar to barley making it an excellent cover crop for protecting or revitalizing soil structure. It can keep the soil from becoming too compacted as well as pull those good nutrients up from deep within the soil.
Sorghum, also known as sudangrass, is a good cover crop to grow in your garden if you’ve struggled with weed problems. Sorghum is generally quick growing and can easily outcompete undesirable weeds.
The best time to sow sorghum is in spring or early summer for a fall termination. Sorghum will die in the winter and makes an excellent ground cover during the colder months. So, if you choose not to terminate it yourself in the fall, you can leave it over the winter and clean up the plant residue in the spring.
10.) Daikon radish
Radishes aren’t often something people consider when they think of cover crops. But don’t let daikons slip under your radar.
Daikons have a taproot that can grow to be up to 2 feet in length, sometimes longer! This makes them a great crop for breaking up hard and compacted soil and can improve water filtration. As a bonus, they’re very delicious and both the root and the leaves can be eaten.
11.) Cover crop mixes
Sometimes it’s hard to determine what exactly the right cover crop is for your garden. That’s where cover crop mixes come in handy. Mixes will have a variety of different cover crop seeds to give your garden a well-rounded assortment of cover crop benefits.
If you’re looking for cover crops to grow through the winter, you might try a fall mix of clovers, vetch, and rye. Alternatively, if you’re looking to grow cover crops over the summer, you might try a mix of oats, barley, peas, or fava beans.
There are cover crop mixes for raised beds, over-wintering, nitrogen-fixing, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s just a matter of finding the right one for your garden.
There are a lot of things to take into consideration when choosing the right cover crop. It can be a lot of information to take in all at once. To make things easier for you, I’ve made this chart to give you a general overview of cover crops traits.
Don’t be afraid to trial-and-error several different cover crops until you find the one that works best for you.
|Type||When to Sow||When to Terminate||Winter Kill||Nitrogen Fixing||Erosion Control|
|Alfalfa||Spring, Late Summer||Fall, Spring||No||Yes||No|
|Barley||Fall, Spring||Spring, Fall||No||No||Yes|
|Buckwheat||Spring, Summer||Summer, Fall||Yes||No||No|
|Clover||Spring, Fall||Fall, Spring||No||Yes||Yes|
|Fava Bean||Early Spring, Late Summer||Early Summer, Fall||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Hairy Vetch||Early Fall||Spring||No||Yes||Yes|
|Oat||Spring, Fall||Summer, Spring||Yes||No||Yes|