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Planting Cover Crops in Your Garden

Updated on July 12, 2010

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.


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    • kingmaxler profile image

      kingmaxler 4 years ago from Olympia, Washington USA

      Thank you. The information was greatly helpful. I cannot decide whether to put in oats or rye. We are still beginning gardeners and this is the next direction we will head in to create lusher growing vegetables

    • profile image

      Amie Warren 7 years ago

      Just started gardening and hubbing, so this is helpful. Thanks! I'm following you.

    • drcrischasse profile image

      drcrischasse 7 years ago from NH/Foxboro

      I did not realize that is what it was, thanks!

    • sweetie1 profile image

      sweetie1 7 years ago from India

      we in delhi never even own a garden leave aside a farm because of land shortage..but i did like ur blog

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 7 years ago from Great Britain

      Very interesting. Thank you for that. I had no idea.

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 7 years ago

      What a great suggestion! My son has a garden and I'll tell him about the benefits of doing this. I think he'd enjoy seeing something growing during the winter, too, rather than looking at dirt.

    • profile image

      WildIris 7 years ago

      This is an excellent reminder to feed the soil. I try to plant one cover crop bed with fava beans not just for the benefit of the soil but for eating fava beans in spring. When is the optimum time to dig in a cover crop?

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for a timely advice because I would like to turn my backgarden into a vegetable garden and will just do that.

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 7 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Cover crops are a win/win..! Great hub. Thanks. I had relatives who planted peanuts to enrich the soil with nitrogen.. and they were paid to do it.

    • GojiJuiceGoodness profile image

      GojiJuiceGoodness 7 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

      One year we planted oats as a cover crop and it really helps keep down the weeds. And when you're ready to plant the "real" crop, oats aren't hard to pull or turn under.

    • bayoulady profile image

      bayoulady 7 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

      GOOD HUB!

      I don't garden much anymore. In days gone by, we had produce growing almost the whole year. My favorites were turnips and bibb lettuce.

    • dxszzcylm profile image

      dxszzcylm 7 years ago from China

      I have not driven past farms and wish some day can try it.