There are a lot of ways you can improve your soil any time of year. But utilizing cover crops in the fall can improve your soil in so many ways. And the best part? They’re so easy to work with.
Usually, as we get ready to prepare our garden for the coming winter season, I’m at a crossroads. Part of our garden is still being utilized for fall garden crops. But, this year after our garden expansion, I’m able to utilize our raised beds for our fall garden and keep the main beds free for cover crops and improving the soil. Which, it desperately needs.
What are Cover Crops?
Admittedly, I haven’t always been this way and until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of a cover crop. But, they are an important part of sustainable agricultural practices.
Cover crops typically consist of legumes and grasses that are planted to benefit the soil rather than for their yield.
You plant them in the fall, giving them enough time to sprout and allow them to over winter. By doing this you have a natural means of weed suppression, prevent soil erosion, and adds nutrients back into the soil.
Different crops provide different benefits, but the idea is the same. You cover your soil with a particular seed (or blend), let it sprout and do its thing over the winter and then you either mow them, till them, leave them, or pull them up a few weeks before you plant your spring garden crops.
Benefits of Cover Crops
Cover crops have multiple benefits with very few, if any, disadvantages. They greatly improve the health of your soil, which can improve your garden yields the following year. They are a completely organic method of improving soil health, ridding disease, among many other things.
- Cover crops are simple. They don’t require a lot of anything. You simply decide what you want to plant, spread them out on the ground and let them do their thing.
- Cover crops slowly release nutrients back into the soil. Depending on which crop you choose, some have the ability to pull nitrogen from the air and slowly release it back into the soil in a soluble form. Some add phosphorus back into the soil.
- All cover crops add organic matter to your soil. Instead of having to wait and build a pile of compost these crops build it up all by themselves in a shorter period of time than it takes to compost material. Cover crops are allowed to grow and tilled directly back into the soil allowing them to build up organic matter. Which is why they are also sometimes referred to as green manure.
- They help with weed prevention. When you have dense crops covering your garden space, it’s really difficult for weeds to get established. Of course, if you plant a crop that does not die off naturally in the winter, you will have to catch it before it flowers in the spring, or you’re just going to have the same problem….
- They prevent soil erosion. We have a huge problem with this on our current homestead. Winter snow and rain really tears down the soil in our garden area. But, if we plant a dense crop, it helps keep the soil right where we need it meaning we don’t have a depressing, barren mess come spring time….
- They conserve water. Each root creates pores in the soil and allows the water to go deeper into the ground.
- Creates biodiversity. This is especially true for large, mono-cropped fields but it also creates biodiversity in backyard gardens and invites different insects and pollinators into a given area than may otherwise be there without the cover crop.
- Can clear out diseases from soil. If things like fungal disease ran rampant through your garden this year, plant a cover crop. It can help break the vicious cycle and improve your soil health while ridding the soil of disease.
When to Plant Cover Crops
Typically for homesteaders, we plant these in the fall when our gardens are about to be dormant over the winter season. Technically, cover crops can be planted any time of year in anticipation of a growing season for a particular crop. But, for the sake of argument, we will stick with fall planting.
You can plant your cover crops any time before fall frosts make the soil too difficult to work with. Which means you could actually have a fall garden and still plant cover crops in most cases.
Regardless, when you’re ready to put your garden to bed for the winter and you’re harvesting and pulling the remainder of your plants, go ahead and throw those cover crops on!
If you live in a particularly cold region, you will want to make sure that the crops you’ve chosen are acclimated to colder weather regions. Many, many are. They’ll germinate even through cold temps and occasional frosts. That’s what you’re going to want to look for.
Common Types of Cover Crops
Like I mentioned earlier, cover crops typically consist of legumes and grasses. Legumes are typically nitrogen fixers whereas the grasses are more of a long-term soil fixer that can bring different nutrients into your soil.
All cover crops are also available in blends of the different grasses and legumes I mention below, which makes it nice as well. But, let’s go over some common cover crops, their uses, and how much you may need.
While we typically think of growing oats for food, they can be an incredibly useful cover crop. Oats will help keep the weeds out and the soil in. They also produce a lot of organic matter and are fantastic for clay soil (like ours).
Oats will die off naturally in the winter, which means less work in the spring. About 4 pounds of oats will cover a 100 square foot space. Then, just lightly cover them with soil and let them do their thing.
Ryegrass is incredibly easy to grow and very fast growing. It has the same benefits as oats, it helps combat weeds and soil erosion and produces a lot of organic matter.
Ryegrass, unlike oats, will die off in the winter and resume growth in the spring. Ryegrass can also keep small seeds from germinating (think carrots) as it decomposes, so keep that in mind. You’ll want to use about a pound per 100 square feet and cover it lightly with soil.
Peas are legumes, which means they are nitrogen fixers. They can produce up to 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre!! Wow…. I don’t know about you, but I find that impressive. Of course, we don’t have an entire acre garden (we only live on an acre). But, that’s still pretty cool.
They are also quick growing and great at smothering out weeds making them a good choice for a lot of gardeners.
Peas do die off in the winter. You’ll want about 5 pounds of peas for every 100 square feet. Again, cover lightly with soil.
Buckwheat is a very quick grower. And makes an excellent crop to smother weeds and help prevent soil erosion.
Buckwheat will die off in the winter. You’ll plant about 1 pound for every 100 square feet. Cover it lightly with soil.
Another nitrogen fixer, hairy vetch can produce plenty of nitrogen for your garden. It also grows very quickly and can help smother out weeds.
However, unlike peas, hairy vetch will resume growth in the spring. You will plant about a pound per 100 square feet.
How to Plant Cover Crops
Planting cover crops is about like seeding for grass. In fact, it’s exactly like seeding grass. You’re going to work the soil, seed it, lightly cover it or rake it, and keep it moist until they begin growing….
- Remove any existing vegetation and work the soil up about 3″ down.
- Sprinkle the seed evenly over the garden bed. Incorporate your kids in this step. Let them help you throw the seed down. This isn’t an exact science, after all….
- Lightly cover the seeds with soil or gently rake them to work them into the soil. You don’t want them to be very deep….
- Keep the garden moist until the seeds germinate.
- Let them do their thing over the winter and provide beautiful, natural, living mulch to your garden beds!
Replanting In the Spring
About a month before you’re ready to plant your spring crops, you’ll want to start taking care of those cover crops. So, what do you do with them? Well, there are a few options.
- Traditionally, people mow down the cover crops and allow them to dry on top of the soil. Once dried, the natural mulch is tilled into the soil. But, you don’t have to do it this way.
- You can also mow it down, let it dry and leave it as a natural mulch on top of the soil not tilling it in.
- You can use a garden fork to work the crops back into the soil gently.
- You can just leave them there and dig up space where you want to plant your crops.
Growing cover crops can be a beneficial option for all backyard gardeners. They are a great way to keep weeds out, improve soil health, increase organic matter, and prevent soil erosion.
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