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How to plant a cover crop
Learn about varieties which help to replenish nutrients to your soil.
Thrives in areas with cold freezing winters and hot summers.
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Different cover crops perform different functions and are best suited to particular regions of the country. Understanding your garden needs and matching plants to your local climate will help you reap the greatest rewards. Use the following tips to select cover crops for your garden.
Begin by understanding the job(s) you want the cover crop to perform. Are you looking to add nitrogen, fight pests, or stabilize erosion-prone soils? Each job calls for a different cover crop. Use this list of cover crop applications to identify the best plants for your garden.
Provide Nitrogen. Cover crops add nitrogen to soils through one of two methods. Legumes such as clover, vetch, and peas convert atmospheric nitrogen in soil into forms usable by plants. Other plants scavenge nitrogen from the soil, capturing excess nitrogen before it can be leached or run-off and storing the nitrogen in plant tissues. Excellent nitrogen scavengers include radish, rye, sudangrass, and sorghum-sudan hybrids. Grains and rapeseed are also good scavengers.
Improve Soil Structure. Tillage or daikon radish is one of the best cover crops for aerating compacted soils and improving water infiltration. Other cover crops produce byproducts that help soil particles adhere to one another resulting in a good crumbly textured soil. Clovers, vetch, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hynrids, rye, and mustards all promote healthy soil structure.
Add Organic Matter or Biomass. Organic matter provides many benefits to soils. Most cover crops provide some amount of organic matter to soils, however, plants differ in the benefits they provide. Succulent plants such as legumes break down quickly in soils providing nutrients, but leave behind little lasting biomass. Fibrous plant tissues such as grasses and grains, break down more slowly, often tying up nutrients, but building stable humus or organic matter in soils. Perennial clovers such as white and red clover can provide both benefits, with the leaves breaking down quickly while the roots and stems contribute to biomass accumulation.
Reduce Soil Erosion. Cover crops that provide good cover and a dense root system help stabilize soils and combat erosion. Clovers, annual ryegrass, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, rapeseed, mustards, Austrian winter peas, cowpeas, and crown vetch are good cover crops for erosion protection.
Pest Management. Some cover crops produce compounds that help fight soil-borne pests, while others are excellent at attracting beneficial insects. Here are a few pest-fighting plants:
Similar to Red Clover, this legume is more adaptable to a variety of soil types and is extremely easy to grow in almost any condition. Perennial. (Trifolium hybridum)...
Annual Rye Grass can be planted as a companion or cover crop to help prevent soil erosion. It is extremely easy and fast to grow. Annual. (Lolium multiflorum)...
Arrowleaf clover is an annual, winter cover crop for southeastern states. A deep root system conditions soils and fixes nitrogen. Plants remain productive over a long growing season ...
This cover crop is low-growing and can be planted to help enrich soil, as well as prevent common garden weeds from coming up. It also delights with white, purple and red blooms. Ann...
Provide Weed Control. Cover crops suppress weeds by preventing seed germination, through competition, or by producing a chemical deterrent in the roots, called allelopathy.
Manage Nutrients. Nitrogen is not the only nutrient managed through cover crops. Cereal rye is excellent for nutrient cycling. Buckwheat and brassicas improve availability of phosphorous in soils. Though known for nitrogen fixation, legumes also help cycle phosphorous in soils.
Provide Lasting Residue/Mulch. Crop residues from ryegrass, yellow blossom clover, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, rye, and barley provide a long-lasting mulch to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Like vegetables, some cover crops are better suited to cooler growing seasons while others thrive in the summer heat. Winter cover crops are widely used to protect and condition soils during the fallow cold season. Warm-season cover crops are commonly used in the spring or summer between other crops. Use the following list to select cover crops according to the time of year.
Plant Common Vetch as a groundcover to loosen the soil and add nitrogen. It is also common feed for cattle, horses and rabbit. This cheerful, pink-blooming annual prefers full sun bu...
An extremely fast and aggressive grower, Crown Vetch produces lovely white and purple blooms. This legume should be planted for erosion control in certain hard-to-reach areas, not in...
Extremely easy to grow and adaptable, this ground cover produces beautiful, bell-shaped purple blooms. Annual or Biennial Legume. (Vicia villosa)...
Plant biology is another factor affecting cover crop selection. Some crops are fast-growing and perfect for quick cover between other crops. Others are perennial, providing an excellent living mulch. The following traits can help guide you in selecting an appropriate cover for your unique situation.
Growth Rate. Buckwheat, Berseem clover, Austrian winter pea, annual ryegrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, sudangrass, oats, and rye are all fast-growing crops ideal for providing quick cover between crops or on sensitive sites.
Annual versus Perennial Cover Crops. While most cover crops are annuals, there are a few perennials commonly used for living mulch, erosion control, or biomass production including red clover, crown vetch, and alfalfa.
Winter Killed versus Winter Dormant Fall-Planted Crops. Not all crops that we consider winter cover crops actually produce during the winter. Many go dormant, resuming growth in early spring when they put on the bulk of their biomass. Others are killed in the winter, but continue to stand, providing soil protection.
This grass is extremely easy and fast to grow. It can be planted for soil stabilization and will also attract wildlife. Perennial. (Elymus canadensis)...
This cover crop is extremely adaptable and is used for soil stabilization. Perennial Rye Grass is fast-growing and easy to grow. Perennial. (Lolium perenne)...
A great winter companion or cover crop. Helps with erosion control, fixes nitrogen, and increases organic matter if seeded after crops are harvested in the fall. (Secale cereale)...
After the role of a cover crop has been filled, plants are generally terminated or killed to prepare planting beds for the main crop. Crop termination also returns nutrients and biomass to the soil. Many cover crops are terminated to prevent them from going to seed and becoming weedy.
Understanding how a cover crop will be terminated or killed is critical to plant selection. Some cover crops used in large-scale farming operations are killed using herbicides. This is obviously not an option for organic gardeners. Before planting a cover crop, know how to terminate its growth cycle and select crops that fit your termination plans. Following are common techniques used for different crops. Also note that timing can be critical in terminating certain crops such as ryegrass (see “Timing Cover Crops Correctly in Your Region”).
Cutting, Mowing, and Lopping. Depending on the size of your cover crop planting you may use a lawn mower, string trimmer, hand shears, or pruners to cut the crop to the ground. Most cereal grains, buckwheat, and peas can be managed by cutting. Cut material can be used to mulch beds, composted, or tilled into the soil.
Winter-kill. Winter killed crops can be tilled into the soil, cut and used as a mulch, or plants and seeds can be directly sown or transplanted into the standing crop residues. With the later method, be sure to consider light needs of seeds. Lettuce, for example, requires a clean seed bed. Winter-killed crops include grains, radishes, cowpeas, field peas, soybeans, soghum-sadan hybrids, sudangrass, and Berseem clover.
Tillage. Low-growing white, red, and Berseem clovers can be terminated by tilling into the soil. Annual rye grass is also commonly managed with tillage.
As with any crop, it is important to match cover crops to your winter hardiness zone. Some cover crops may be winter-killed in one region, but go dormant in warmer climates. Likewise, plant hardiness varies by region, including both cold and heat tolerance.
American Meadows' Cover Crop product pages include information on the ideal regions to grow each species as well as USDA hardiness information. Here are a few additional resources to aid in selecting the best cover crops for your location: