What is a cover crop? How do I use it? Can I use cover crops in my raised beds? Which cover crop is the best? What are the benefits?
In this blog post, I’ll answer all of these questions and more to untangle the confusion behind using cover crops in the home garden (or in any setting!).
What is A Cover Crop?
Soil is not meant to be open and exposed to the elements. Healthy soil is a living, breathing organism and can get damaged from prolonged exposure to the elements without cover. Think excessive heat from the beating sun, drying out, erosion from water or wind, compaction from snow and heavy rains.
Furthermore… PLANTS are a key player in a healthy soil biome! No plants = limited biological activity in the soil.
So planting a cover crop in an area not being cultivated (whether it be because it’s winter, or because you just need a break from gardening), will help nurture your soil in two ways:
- Protect the soil and soil biology from the elements
- Contribute to and encourage a growing soil biome and healthy soil structure
A cover crop is any crop that is grown in an area to protect and enrich the soil. There is no “magic” classification as to which plants can or cannot be a cover crop, but there are plants that work really well as cover crops such as: winter rye, alfalfa, hairy vetch, mustards, cowpeas, clovers, radish, and buckwheat, to name a few.
Which Cover Crop Should I Use?
There are two main considerations when choosing a cover crop for your space is timing.
1.) What time of year do you need to employ the help of a cover crop to keep your bare soil covered?
2.) Do you live in a cold winter climate or a warm winter climate?
Choices like winter rye and hairy vetch are well suited for a fall planting in a cold winter climate to keep the soil covered throughout the winter months. Choices like clover, buckwheat, and alfalfa are best suited for winter cover in warm winter climates, or for summer cover in cold winter climates.
A chart like this one from Johnny’s Selected Seed can help you decide which cover crop you might like to try depending on your region and season.
How Do I Plant A Cover Crop?
The soil where you want to plant your cover crop should be somewhat loose so the seeds can germinate and put down roots. You can turn in some compost or manure before sowing the cover crop seed to boost the results.
A common way to sow a cover crop in any area is to broadcast the seed. This basically means throw seed out like confetti in the area to achieve even coverage. Be careful not to concentrate too many seeds in one area because the plants will compete!
After broadcasting your seed out, you can use a bow rake to kind of scratch the seed into the soil, encouraging better soil/seed contact. Overall, most cover crop seeds are pretty hardy and will find their way if you just give them a little water.
Keep the area watered enough to help your cover crop seeds germinate and to keep the growing stand alive. If you are sowing a fall cover crop, you can stop watering once cooler weather comes. The stand should be healthy by that time, and hopefully natural precipitation can take over.
In the spring, or if using a summer cover crop, chop the plants down before they go to flower. You can drop this plant material on the ground in place or add it to another empty bed as free organic matter! Turn the whole lot of it, roots and all, into the soil with a shovel or tiller.
Tons of organic matter is incorporated into your soil during this process and your soil has been protected the whole time the cover crop stand was in place. A win win!
Alright, this area is now ready to plant 🙂
Can I use a cover crop in my raised beds?
Yes!!! Absolutely. Sometimes you need a summer off from gardening or sometimes you just want to plant up one bed but not the other. And maybe this winter, you’d like to enrich and protect the soil with a cover crop instead of just keeping it covered with dead plant mulch (because your soil should ALWAYS be covered with something in the winter).
Crops like oats, clover, and field peas are great for raised beds! Winter rye and vetch are also a great choice. You will just chop these plants down and turn them right into the soil with a shovel in the spring or before they go to seed.
Here’s a picture of what a raised bed looks like planted up with a cover crop:
Which Cover Crop is Best?
To summarize, ALL cover crops are best! The most important thing to consider when choosing a cover crop is what time of year do I want/need to plant the cover crop and do I have a cold or warm winter climate? Is it heading into the heat of the summer? Or into the cold of the winter? This question will guide you to which crops will be the most appropriate. A quick google search will give you loads of information on which are cool season and which are warm season cover crops. In summary:
Fall/Winter: Rye, Vetch, Clovers, Peas, Clover
Spring/Summer: Wheat, Oats, Buckwheat, Alfalfa, Peas
Don’t be Afraid to Try a Cover Crop
If there is any area of your garden where soil will remain exposed for a prolonged period of time, try out a cover crop! Cover crop stands are easy to establish, work well in any season, and do wonders for enriching and protecting the precious resource that is your soil!
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