Planting Cover Crops in Your Garden
Have you ever driven past farms in the middle of winter and seen crops in the fields? I often wondered what kind of farmer would let their crops get ruined by cold, harsh winters. Now I know that they were actually growing cover crops - which are very beneficial for the soil. Cover crops are easy to grow and will help your soil tremendously.
A cover crop is a crop grown during a soil's resting period to help regenerate the soil. For some farmers, this is in the summer months, for many it is in the winter. It is beneficial to a farm to rotate crops, letting a field rest a season every few years. But I have learned that rather than having a rest, they should be planted with a beneficial cover crop.
There are several benefits to growing cover crops. First, having a crop growing or resting over the winter will prevent soil erosion. Good soil is a precious resource in my mind and I don't want it getting blown away or washed away if there is nothing there to hold it in place. Second, cover crops provide weed control. If you have a field or garden box with open soil, you had better believe that weeds will take hold there. Rather than spraying chemicals on that open soil, plant a cover crop. Weeds won't grow where something else is growing.
Third, cover crops add nutrients back into the soil. When a field rests, it does help the soil. Planting a cover crop, though, will benefit that field even more as it adds much needed nitrogen back into the soil. Plants typically will take certain nutrients out of the soil, while adding other nutrients back into the soil. It is a cycle that goes constantly. When a field rests barren the cycle stops momentarily. Planting a cover crop allows this cycle to continue, feeding the soil and the animals and microbes beneath the soil that keep the soil healthy.
Fourth, cover crops can help pest control. Cover crops help keep beneficial insects around. These beneficial insects help your garden. Fifth, looking out into the garden and seeing a crop growing is nicer than seeing bare fields.
There are several different types of cover crops that you can grow. Oats are very cold hardy, therefore making a good crop to grow after you have harvested your garden for the winter. Hairy vetch, rye and legumes are other winter cover crops that will work well. When planting cover crops to overwinter, you need to plant them early enough in the fall for the crops to grow. Then let the crops rest there over the winter. They will survive until a hard freeze and at that point, the roots will break down into the soil and make it more fertile. Depending on how large the cover crops are you can either work them into the soil in the spring or you can rake them away and add the dead plants to your compost pile.
For summer cover crops there are several options. Rather than letting a field produce nothing for the year, I prefer to plant a cold hardy spring crop of something like lettuce or peas. Then plant a cover crop such as buckwheat, soybeans, or sweet clover to grow over the summer. In the fall I can dig up the cover crop and have a late planting of other cold hardy plants like broccoli or spinach.
Cover crops are inexpensive and easy to grow, as you can simply plant the seeds and let nature take over. At the end of a long growing season it might seem like too much work and that it isn't worth it, but it is too beneficial to pass up. You don't have to grow a cover crop every single year, but if you can do it at least every few years, you will see a huge benefit in the quality of your soil.