For excellent soil health in your vegetable garden, incorporating cover crops should be a high priority. One of the worst things you can do for the soil is to let it stand empty for long periods of time (like winter or the gap between spring and fall crops), because that is when moisture and nutrients are lost, soil erodes, populations of beneficial soil organisms crash, and the soil temperature fluctuates wildly. A cover crop plan, as part of the crop rotation in your garden, can perform numerous tasks for your garden including:
- weed suppression
- erosion control
- building soil organic matter
- fixing nitrogen
- scavenging nutrients from deep soil layers
- suppressing soil pests and pathogens
What Plants are Cover Crops?
Cover cropping is a practice that most avid backyard gardeners know about, but far fewer actually practice. This may be partly due to the lack of seed for cover crops in small packages. Don’t let that stop you! Here are 9 great cover crops that you can find readily available in home garden-sized packaging.
Annual Ryegrass: maintains erosion control, minimizes soil compaction, and a good nurse crop for fall planted clover.
Buckwheat: establishes quickly in warm weather, useful for weed suppression and attracting pollinators.
Cow Peas: (aka southern peas, crowder peas) fixes nitrogen and smothers weeds in warm weather.
Crimson Clover: fixes nitrogen and smothers weeds in cool weather.
Daikon Radish: breaks up hard subsoils, scavenges nutrients from the lower soil layers.
Fava Beans: fix nitrogen and offer large quantities of organic matter to incorporate into the soil in spring.
Field Peas: add organic matter and fix nitrogen.
Marigold: has become famous for its’ ability to control nematodes… but only when used as a monocultural cover crop for at least three months.
Mustard: prevents weeds, suppresses soil pests, controls erosion, scavenges nutrients.
Try planting some cover crops this year once you’ve pulled your spent summer plants. When is comes time to put in your fall garden, your soil will be in great condition and ready to go!