Crimson Clover, or Trifolium incarnatumCrimson Clover, or Trifolium incarnatum

How To Select Cover Crops For The Home Garden

Understanding your garden needs and matching plants to your local climate will help you reap the greatest rewards. Cover crops can perform a wide range of jobs to improve your garden soil. Are you looking to add nitrogen, fight pests, or stabilize erosion-prone soils? Use this guide to identify the best cover crops for a thriving garden!

Part 1: Find Cover Crops To Problem-Solve

  1. Provide Nitrogen
  2. Improve Soil Structure
  3. Add Organic Matter or Biomass
  4. Reduce Soil Erosion
  5. Manage Pests
  6. Suppress and Control Weeds
  7. Manage Nutrients
  8. Provide Lasting Residue or Mulch

Part 2: Find Cover Crops To Meet Your Needs

  1. Cover Crops For Your Garden Timeline
  2. Cover Crops Based On Growth Rates
  3. Cover Crops For Termination Methods
  4. Cover Crops Suitable To Your Region

Part 1: Problem Solving Cover Crops

layers of sub soillayers of sub soil
Bare, unplanted soils are at risk of losing valuable nutrients, making it hard for the next plant in that spot to be healthy. Cover Crop root systems and plant matter (both alive and dead) can help to keep soils vital and loosely-textured.
healthy soil with earth wormshealthy soil with earth worms
Cover Crops add organic matter to soil, which offers food and habitat to earth worms and other 'soil critters.' Living soil helps air, water, and nutrients make their way to plant roots with ease, which improves plant growth!

1. Cover Crops To Provide Nitrogen

Cover crops add nitrogen to soils through one of two methods: nitrogen fixing and nitrogen scavening. Nitrogen-fixing legumes such as clover, vetch, and peas convert atmospheric nitrogen in soil into forms that can be used by your plants. Nitrogen scavenging plants capturing excess nitrogen before it can run-off, and store the nitrogen in plant tissues. Excellent nitrogen scavengers include radish, rye, sudangrass, and sorghum-sudan hybrids. Grains are also good scavengers.

2. Cover Crops To Improve Soil Structure

One of the best cover crops for aerating compacted soils and improving water infiltration is tillage radish, or daikon radish. Clovervetch, rye, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, and mustards all promote healthy soil structure. These cover crops produce byproducts that help soil particles adhere to one another resulting in a good crumbly textured soil.

3. Cover Crops To Add Organic Matter or Biomass

Organic matter provides many benefits to soils. Most cover crops provide some amount of organic matter to soils, but plants differ in the benefits they provide. Succulent plants, such as legumes (clover, patridge pea, and vetch), break down quickly in soils. They provide nutrients, but leave behind little lasting biomass. Fibrous plant tissues such as grasses and grains, break down more slowly. They will tie up nutrients, but build 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.

4. Cover Crops To Reduce Soil Erosion

Cover crops that provide good cover and a dense root system help stabilize soils and combat erosion. Clovers, annual ryegrass, Austrian winter peas, crown vetch, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, rapeseed, mustards, and cowpeas are good cover crops for erosion protection.

White CloverWhite Clover
White Clover

Shop Clover Seeds

  1. Soil Boost & Pollinator Seed Mix

    Our Pollinator Cover Crop Seed Mix features a varied mix of easy-to-grow legumes, including Clover, Alfalfa, Vetch, and Sainfoin. Small white, pink, purple, and gold flowers attract ...

    Learn More
    Pollinator Cover Crop Seed Mix Balansa Clover, Berseem Clover, Yellow Sweet Clover, Sainfoin, Hairy Vetch & Alfalfa Trifolium michelianum Savi, Trifolium alexandrinum, Melilotus officinalis, Onobrychis vicifolia, Vicia villosa & Medicago sativa
    As low as $9.95 Sale $9.46
    Per 1 Pound
    Our Pollinator Cover Crop Seed Mix features a varied mix of easy-to-grow legumes, including Clover, Alfalfa, Vetch, and Sainfoin. Small white, pink, purple, and gold flowers attract and nourish pollinators. Hardworking legumes suppress weeds, fix nutrients into the soil, improve soil condition, and prevent erosion. This is an excellent choice for groundcover and covercrops, as well as lawn replacement, or adding to a wildflower meadow. All of the seed we carry at American Meadows is non-GMO, neonicotinoid-free and guaranteed to grow.
    Learn More
  2. Yellow Blossom Clover Seeds, Melilotus officinalis, Yellow Blossom Sweet Clover Seeds

    Plant Yellow Blossom Clover as a cover crop to bring potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen to the surface of the soil. This drought-resistant clover is a vigorous grower, withstanding m...

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    Yellow Blossom Clover Seeds Yellow Blossom Sweet Clover Seeds Melilotus officinalis
    As low as $24.95 Sale $23.71
    Per 5 Pounds
    Plant Yellow Blossom Clover as a cover crop to bring potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen to the surface of the soil. This drought-resistant clover is a vigorous grower, withstanding many conditions.
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  3. White Clover Seeds, Trifolium repens

    This legume is a vigorous, easy-to-grow clover that will produce large, white blooms. White Clover is perfect for using as a cover crop. Perennial. (Trifolium repens)...

    Learn More
    White Clover Seeds White Clover Trifolium repens
    As low as $9.95 Sale $9.46
    Per 1 Pound
    This legume is a vigorous, easy-to-grow clover that will produce large, white blooms. White Clover is perfect for using as a cover crop. Perennial. (Trifolium repens)
    Learn More
  4. White Dutch White Clover Seeds, Trifolium repens, Dutch White Clover Seeds

    Dutch White Clover is one of the most popular clovers used in lawns, but also has many other uses. Plant this perennial clover as a cover crop, groundcover, for erosion control or in...

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    Dutch White Clover Seeds Dutch White Clover Seeds Trifolium repens
    As low as $38.95 Sale $37.01
    Per 5 Pounds
    Dutch White Clover is one of the most popular clovers used in lawns, but also has many other uses. Plant this perennial clover as a cover crop, groundcover, for erosion control or in your pasture mixture. The elegant, white flowers create a sweeping carpet of white. (Trifolium repens)
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5. Cover Crops To Manage Pests

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:

  • Crimson Clover: Blooms to supports beneficial insects
  • Buckwheat: Supports large populations of beneficial insects and pollinators
  • Cereal Rye: Reduces soil-borne diseases and root-knot nematodes. Not suitable for crops impacted by cutworms and wireworms.
  • Wheat: Suppresses diseases and nematodes
  • Mustards: Suppresses nematodes
  • Rapeseed: Suppresses Rhizoctonia root rot fungus

6. Cover Crops To Suppress and Control Weeds

Cover crops suppress weeds by preventing seed germination, through competition, or by producing a chemical deterrent in the roots, called allelopathy.

  • Seed Germination: Hairy vetch, buckwheat, and daikon or forage radish reduce light penetration into soils, which suppresses weed seed germination.
  • Competition: Dense-growing cover crops and those with aggressive root systems manage weeds through competition - choose peas, clovers, buckwheat, rye, and oats.
  • Allelopathy: Buckwheat, Brassicas including rapeseed, mustards, and radishes, as well as sorghum and sorghum–sudangrass hybrids, and subterranean clover produce allelopathic substances. Winter rye is effective against pigweed, lambsquarter, purslane, and crabgrass. Some crops such as lettuce are sensitive to allelopathy, while others benefit, so use with cation.

7. Cover Crops To Improve and 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 such as clover, vetch, and partridge pea also help cycle phosphorous in soils.

8. Cover Crops To Provide Lasting Residue or Mulch

Crop residues from yellow blossom clover, rye grass (Lolium), rye (Secale cerelae), sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, and barley provide a long-lasting mulch to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture.

Vernal AlfalfaVernal Alfalfa
Vernal Alfalfa

Shop Soil-Building Cover Crops

  1. Soil Boost & Pollinator Seed Mix

    Our Pollinator Cover Crop Seed Mix features a varied mix of easy-to-grow legumes, including Clover, Alfalfa, Vetch, and Sainfoin. Small white, pink, purple, and gold flowers attract ...

    Learn More
    Pollinator Cover Crop Seed Mix Balansa Clover, Berseem Clover, Yellow Sweet Clover, Sainfoin, Hairy Vetch & Alfalfa Trifolium michelianum Savi, Trifolium alexandrinum, Melilotus officinalis, Onobrychis vicifolia, Vicia villosa & Medicago sativa
    As low as $9.95 Sale $9.46
    Per 1 Pound
    Our Pollinator Cover Crop Seed Mix features a varied mix of easy-to-grow legumes, including Clover, Alfalfa, Vetch, and Sainfoin. Small white, pink, purple, and gold flowers attract and nourish pollinators. Hardworking legumes suppress weeds, fix nutrients into the soil, improve soil condition, and prevent erosion. This is an excellent choice for groundcover and covercrops, as well as lawn replacement, or adding to a wildflower meadow. All of the seed we carry at American Meadows is non-GMO, neonicotinoid-free and guaranteed to grow.
    Learn More
  2. White Clover Seeds, Trifolium repens

    This legume is a vigorous, easy-to-grow clover that will produce large, white blooms. White Clover is perfect for using as a cover crop. Perennial. (Trifolium repens)...

    Learn More
    White Clover Seeds White Clover Trifolium repens
    As low as $9.95 Sale $9.46
    Per 1 Pound
    This legume is a vigorous, easy-to-grow clover that will produce large, white blooms. White Clover is perfect for using as a cover crop. Perennial. (Trifolium repens)
    Learn More
  3. Austrian Winter Pea Seeds, Pisum arvense

    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...

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    Austrian Winter Pea Seeds Austrian Winter Pea Pisum arvense
    As low as $12.95 Sale $12.31
    Per 5 Pounds
    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. Annual. (Pisum arvense)
    Learn More
  4. Berseem Clover Close Up

    Berseem clover suppresses weeds, prevents erosion, and fixes nitrogen in the soil. Often called the “king of forage” Berseem germinates rapidly, grows quickly, and produces abund...

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    Berseem Clover Seeds Berseem Clover Trifolium alexandrinum
    As low as $4.95 Sale $4.71
    Per 1/4 Pound
    Berseem clover suppresses weeds, prevents erosion, and fixes nitrogen in the soil. Often called the “king of forage” Berseem germinates rapidly, grows quickly, and produces abundant biomass which breaks down to replenish organic matter. Attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects. A green manure crop that does not re-seed in the garden. (Trifolium alexandrinum)
    Learn More

Part 2: Cover Crops To Meet Your Needs

1. Cover Crops For Your Gardening Timeline

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, to balance soil nutrients between other crops. Use the following list to select cover crops according to the time of year.

2. Cover Crops Based On Growth Rates

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, rye, sorghum-sudan hybrids, sudangrass, and oats are all fast-growing crops ideal for providing quick cover between crops or on sensitive sites.
  • Annual vs. Perennial Cover Crops: While most cover crops are annuals, there are a few perennials commonly used for living mulch, erosion control, or biomass production. These includ red clover, crown vetch, and alfalfa.
  • Winter Killed vs. Winter Dormant Fall-Planted Crops: Not all crops that we consider "winter cover crops" actually produce during the winter - many are "Winter Dormant," resuming growth in early spring when they put on the bulk of their biomass. Others are "Winter Killed", meaning the plants die in winter, but continue to stand to providing soil protection and prevent erosion from wind or rain.
    • Winter-Killed Crops: Rye, oats, wheat, spelt, and triticale produce an abundance of biomass in the fall that protects soils, despite being killed by winter temperatures. Oil radishes and forage radishes penetrate soils, providing aeration, but plant tissues decompose over the winter months, leaving a clean seed bed for early-season spring crops.
    • Winter-Dormant Crops: Hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian peas go dormant during the winter months in locations where the plants are winter hardy. Fall planting provides an initial surge of growth, yielding roots that help hold soils over the winter.

3. Cover Crops For Termination Methods

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 - but this is obviously not an option for organic gardeners, and one we don't generally recommend. 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.

4. Cover Crops Suitable To Your Region

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.

Have questions? You can always contact us for recommendations and advice for planting the right cover crops.

 

Canada Wild RyeCanada Wild Rye
Canada Wild Rye

Shop Rye Grass Seeds

  1. Winter Rye Grass Seeds, Secale cereale, Winter Rye Grass or Grain Rye

    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)...

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    Winter Rye Grass Seeds Winter Rye Grass or Grain Rye Secale cereale
    As low as $10.95 Sale $10.41
    Per 5 Pounds
    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)
    Learn More
  2. Perennial Rye Grass Seeds, Lolium perenne, Perennial Rye Grass

    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)...

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    Perennial Rye Grass Seeds Perennial Rye Grass Lolium perenne
    As low as $19.95 Sale $18.96
    Per 5 Pounds
    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)
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  3. Canada Wild Rye Grass Seeds, Elymus canadensis, Wild Rye Canada

    This grass is extremely easy and fast to grow. It can be planted for soil stabilization and will also attract wildlife. Perennial. (Elymus canadensis)...

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    Canada Wild Rye Grass Seeds Wild Rye Canada Elymus canadensis
    As low as $28.95 Sale $27.51
    Per 1 Pound
    This grass is extremely easy and fast to grow. It can be planted for soil stabilization and will also attract wildlife. Perennial. (Elymus canadensis)
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  4. Annual Rye Grass Seeds, Lolium multiflorum, Annual Rye Grass

    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)...

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    Annual Rye Grass Seeds Annual Rye Grass Lolium multiflorum
    As low as $9.95 Sale $9.46
    Per 5 Pounds
    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)
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