The list of benefits to cover crops for the gardens is extensive. Choosing a cover crop to accomplish a specific goal for their zone is where most people run into trouble. Let’s look at the two main cover crops and see if we can’t clear up some of the questions you may have.
Cover Crops For the Garden
There are two main groups of cover crops for gardens, legumes, and non-legumes. Both create green manure. We create green manure for fertilizing the soil by allowing the cover crop to live, die, and decompose where it is sown.
You can simply leave them on top of the soil to serve as mulch and slowly fertilize the soil. If you prefer to use them as a more efficient soil amendment, you can plow or turn them under when they are still green and before they go to seed. We prefer to do this rather than leaving them on top of the soil.
When you say legume the first thought is usually peas and beans. They are legumes but they are a small part of this large group of plants. Legumes are excellent nitrogen fixers for the soil making them beneficial cover crops for the garden. Legumes can accomplish so many things in your soil. They are used to prevent erosion, prevent weeds, and add organic matter.
This group includes winter annuals such as hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, and more. There are annual clovers of all kinds, like white and red. There are also a couple of biennials like Sweet Clover and a large group of summer annuals.
Annual winter legumes, like the name implies, are planted in early fall for maturing over winter to provide Nitrogen and biomass production in time for spring planting. Both perennial and biennial legumes grow quickly making them perfect forage crops between main crops.
As forage crops, they can be turned under to enrich the soil or harvested to feed livestock and poultry. The use of summer annual legumes as cover crops for the garden depends totally on your climate. In cooler climates, these summer crops aren’t an option.
With non-legumes, the first crop thought of is ryegrass but like legumes, the class of non-legume cover crops for gardens is expansive. As with all of the gardening, your climate determines which of the annual or perennial cover crops you can use.
Unlike legumes which fix nitrogen, non-legume cover crops use nitrogen. They’re just as efficient at preventing erosion, suppressing weeds, and adding organic matter to the soil. Like many people, we plant a mix of legumes and non-legumes.
Cereal grains used as cover crops have the widest range of climates in which they will thrive. The winter annual cereal grains, like wheat, are usually planted in early fall to allow them time to establish themselves before they go dormant in the winter. With the spring green-up, they flourish and increase their biomass contribution as they mature their grains.
Buckwheat is our favorite choice for a perennial cover crop for the garden. It’s not grass, but many people use it to accomplish some of the same tasks as they would a summer-annual grass. It makes a good forager for livestock, poultry flocks, and the insect world. It’s a favorite of bees. It also accomplishes all the benefits of other cover crops.
One of the best ways we’ve used buckwheat is in preparing new areas for gardening. We plant them early, let them go to seed, and rot where they lay. Next spring the new crop comes up and before it seeds, we turn it under for green manure. The soil is rich and ready without weeds as the cover crop has choked them out, at least buckwheat accomplishes this for us.
Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio
Because non-legumes are higher in carbon than legume crops, they take longer to break down. My simple understanding of this process is there are fewer nutrients readily available to the next crop because the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is high and takes longer to break down.
So why do people plant them? Because when the process is complete, the organic matter left is much greater than that of the legumes. This means richer, more fertile soil in the end. They also keep nitrogen from leaching out of the soil through erosion or weeds feeding off it.
If you want to use the spot right after a cover crop, one way to deal with this is to plant a crop that is not a high-nitrogen feeder. It will have what it needs there. Mixing non-legume and legume cover crops for gardens is the most efficient way to balance the delicate world of your soil.
I prefer letting the area rest allowing the billions of little microbes and other critters living under the soil to do their job before I plant in an area where non-legume cover crops have been used.
Tips and FAQs for Successful Cover Crop Management
Cover crops play a crucial role in sustainable agriculture by improving soil health, preventing erosion, and enhancing overall ecosystem resilience. Whether you’re a seasoned farmer or just starting, these tips and frequently asked questions will help you make the most of cover crops in your farming practices.
Tips for Cover Crop Success:
- Choose the Right Cover Crop: Select cover crops based on your specific goals. Some common choices include legumes like clover for nitrogen fixation, grasses for erosion control, and mixes for diverse benefits.
- Consider Local Climate and Conditions: Opt for cover crops that thrive in your region’s climate and soil conditions. Research which cover crops are best suited for your area’s growing seasons.
- Plan Cover Crop Rotation: Rotate cover crops with cash crops to maximize benefits. Follow leguminous cover crops with nutrient-demanding crops to capitalize on nitrogen availability.
- Seedbed Preparation: Properly prepare the seedbed to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. This might involve light tilling or raking, depending on the cover crop’s seed size and requirements.
- Weed Management: Cover crops can suppress weeds, but they also require weed management themselves. Monitor cover crops for weed growth and address them accordingly.
- Termination Methods: Choose suitable termination methods, such as mowing, tilling, or rolling, based on the cover crop type and growth stage. This ensures cover crops don’t become a hindrance to your main crop.
- Soil Testing: Conduct soil tests to monitor nutrient levels and ensure soil health. Adjust your cover crop choices to address any nutrient deficiencies in the soil.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Cover Crops:
Q1: Can cover crops replace fertilizer?
A: No, they provide some nutrients, but they cannot replace maintaining nutrient-rich soil. You can make your own fertilizer too.
Q2: When should I plant cover crops?
A: Timing depends on your location and the intended benefits. Plant them after harvest in late summer or early fall, or in early spring.
Q3: How do I terminate cover crops?
A: Termination methods vary. Mowing, tilling, or using a roller-crimper are common. The chosen method depends on the cover crop’s growth stage and your equipment.
Q4: Can cover crops attract pests?
A: While they provide habitat for certain pests, they can also attract beneficial insects that help control pest populations. Proper management can minimize pest issues.
Q5: Can I graze animals on cover crops?
A: Yes, especially certain grasses and legumes can provide forage for livestock. Proper timing and management are essential to balance grazing benefits with cover crop goals.
Q6: Do cover crops impact crop rotation?
A: Cover crops can enhance crop rotation by improving soil health and reducing pest pressure. They can also be integrated into the rotation as green manure.
Q7: Do cover crops always have to be tilled under?
A: No, they can be left on the soil surface as mulch in conservation tillage systems. This helps protect the soil from erosion and retains moisture.
Q8: Can I save seeds from cover crops?
A: Yes, you can save seeds from them, however, ensure the cover crops don’t become weeds themselves by proper management and seed cleaning.
By following these tips and understanding the FAQs, you can effectively incorporate cover crops into your gardening practices, promoting sustainable and resilient farming.
Do you use legumes, non-legumes, or a combination of the two for the garden?
If you would like other gardening and harvesting tips, check out our garden articles here,