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Cover Crops–Growing Soil Health!

Why I Use Cover Crops

Being a co-owner of Botanical Interests means I can be creative with new products. Several years ago, we added a few cover crops in large-sized seed packets, hoping that gardeners would take advantage of this long-time, organic agricultural practice in their home gardens. Not only were cover crops a hit, they have also created so many conversations with customers wanting to know more!

Cover crop

Cover crops or "green manures" have gone hand in hand with agricultural practices for a long time and were even documented by the Roman poet, Virgil, in 29 BC. Cover crops naturally re-enrich soil, protect it from erosion due to rain or wind, improve its texture, and feed soil organisms, which maintain a healthy ecosystem in the soil, breaking down minerals and nutrients that feed plants. As gardeners, our success is directly tied to the soil in a very tangible way, but looking at the bigger picture, soil health impacts all its inhabitants and the greater environment.

"History is largely a record of human struggle to wrest the land from nature, because man relies for sustenance on the products of the soil. So direct is the relationship between soil erosion, the productivity of the land, and the prosperity of people, that the history of mankind, to a considerable degree at least, may be interpreted in terms of the soil and what has happened to it as the result of human use." - Hugh H. Bennett and W.C. Lowdermilk, 1930s

Can you tell I am passionate about soil?

Our current cover crop selection gives options for spring, summer, and fall cover crop growing. Any of the cover crops you choose to grow do two things: as they grow, they provide heavy shade, suppressing weed germination and growth.; and as they decompose into the garden bed or your compost pile, they contribute organic material.

Specifically, peas (sow in spring or fall), fava beans (sow in spring or fall) or crimson clover (sow in spring or fall) fix nitrogen (draw in nitrogen and convert it to a form that plants can absorb), trapping it in their roots for the next plants to use. Nitrogen contributes to the green growth of plants and is the nutrient we need to add most often in the garden because it easily changes to a gas and moves about. Buckwheat is excellent at mining the soil for phosphorus, which contributes to root, flower, and fruit growth, making it accessible to plants as it decomposes.

Cover crop

When I Use Cover Crops

In the spring, I sow crimson clover under my fruit trees to not only enrich the soil, but also to call in the pollinators, and, as a bonus, its strawberry-colored flowers are adorable and make great tea! In July, after harvesting my garlic, I sow buckwheat over the bed, chopping it down once I see about a third of it in flower (I don't want it to reseed), allowing it to regrow. I cut the buckwheat two or three times, letting the cut parts lie on the soil as a mulch, until I turn them in later. The bonus here, is that the bees love buckwheat flowers! Late in summer when my sweet corn or other warm-season crops are done, I sow fava or peas and oats in their place. A heavy frost will kill the peas and oats, but favas will keep going until it gets persistently cold (below 20°F). I let the dead vegetation stand until spring, shading the soil, which preserves moisture; the roots hold the soil in place and feed microorganisms over the winter.

Cover crop

I have even used cover crops in newly created beds, giving them some nutrition and keeping the weeds at bay while I decide what to sow. A healthy soil is a soil covered in something living. With few exceptions, a bare patch of soil will quickly be covered with vegetation which nurtures and protects it. Gardening with cover crops is a way we can pick beneficial plants to cover that bare patch rather than allowing weeds to take up residence.

"The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all." - Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977

Read more information on cover crops and how to choose the right cover crop for your organic gardening goals in our article, Cover Crops for a Naturally Better Garden.

Have you been using cover crops in your garden? Share your insight and experience in the comments below!

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Cover Crops–Growing Soil Health! Comments


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5 out of 5 stars Aug 2, 2019
Loved your cover crop blog! Thanks for sharing how you use cover crops in your own garden. I'm going to seed some buckwheat tomorrow, and hope it mines up some phosphorous for the cool-season crops that will follow! We've been seeding a lot of Sunn Hemp (Crotalaria juncea) here in Zone 9 Florida these past few months, as virtually ALL of our spring crops have succumbed to the pests, pathogens, and HEAT that our summer rainy season fosters. Sunn Hemp is one of the few root-knot nematode resistant/tolerant cover crops whose seeds will actually germinate and happily grow in our now quite HOT Florida sandy and alkaline soils. It's quite easy to "chop and drop" this fast-growing nitrogen-fixer in order to maintain a "reasonable height" for a suburban postage-stamp lot, but it's also a pleasure at end of season when the mature plants present their showy panicles of sweetly fragrant flowers! We often train a few Sun Hemp in each corner of our garden beds as single-stem "standards" that branch out near the top with multiple blooms - as though it were a yellow-flowered wisteria or a Florida-friendly lilac. Sunn Hemp might be our all-time favorite summer cover crop....and the assassin bugs, paper wasps, and other beneficial insects love it too (with Sunn Hemp's wealth of extra-floral nectaries, even before it's matured to flower stage)! If you plant you Sunn Hemp early enough in the spring, it can attract and support beneficial insects (like Assassins and Paper Wasps) who will happily police your neighboring melon, cucumber, and corn plots, and daily pick off the caterpillars and "worms" that would otherwise devastate those crops. Nothing more satisfying than watching the paper wasps pick the melon worms off your 'lopes and carry them over to their favorite perch on the Sunn Hemp where they've been sipping extra-floral nectary "cocktails" prior to the arrival of "tasty worm" protein season in your garden.
E H Corona from FL
Owner Response: Thanks so much for sharing you cover crop experience. We will look into carrying sunn hemp in the future. Happy gardening!

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5 out of 5 stars Aug 8, 2019
Thanks for forwarding this link to me; I'm interested in using Fall cover crops @ Community garden which I coordinate. The soil was brought in and is not the best. Over the past 3 years I've added compost and mulch turned in but feel it could use more help. I need to figure out which mix for our Zone 5 and Fall planting.
Carol from VT

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5 out of 5 stars Aug 29, 2020
I intend to follow your advice, thank you. We currently are growing our first cover crops in the pasture acreage. The buckwheat is now waist to shoulder high. The crimson clover is just starting to show signs of flower. The third newly plowed section is where we will plant nitro radish. I have neglected the garden beds and will start seeding there as well.
Avis Peterson from WA

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5 out of 5 stars Sep 27, 2020
Please check your state or county's list of invasive plants before planting covers crops unless you meticulously prevent flowering and seed drop. Plants native to tropics (like Sunn Hemp) might easily escape to present future problems for native flora and fauna species. It's easy to check,simply google "(your state) list of invasive herbacious plants" OR call your county's Agriculture Commissioner's office for a list of species.
sue girard from CA

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5 out of 5 stars Mar 23, 2022
I did sow cover crops in the fall (clover, oats, peas), but have yet to see anything come up. Did I plant too late, or am I looking for them too soon? Zone 6 here
Kathy from IN
Owner Response: Hi Kathy, In late summer/fall cover crops should be sown 4 to 6 weeks before your average last frost date so they can establish before being killed by frost. It sounds like they may not have had the time and conditions to get established last year. Feel free to contact our horticulturist for help, horticulturists@botanicalinterests.com.

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