Cover Crops – No Naked Soil
You don’t go out in public naked and (probably) don’t garden naked, so why leave your garden soil naked?
The best way to keep the soil covered – while improving it – is with cover crops. This is an easy but major step to getting that great garden you want.
Cover crops improve soil fertility and help manage weeds, pests and diseases. They also provide forage for chickens, ducks, goats or sheep.
Pretty impressive, isn’t it?
Cover crops are grains, grasses and legumes (such as peas) often mixed together to support and enhance each other to improve soil health.
The two biggest ways cover crops improve the soil are above and below ground.
Above ground, the leafy plants shade the soil and decrease the amount of weeds getting started. After a frost, mowing or weed whacking, they create a thick layer of surface mulch and slowly decay, adding organic material to the topsoil.
Below ground the extensive root systems improve your gardens soil by bringing up nutrients and preventing soil erosion while improving air and water flow. The different cover crops roots vary; from deep taproots to shallow extensive root systems.
Despite the simple appearance, there is a lot going on “behind the scenes”, so let’s take a closer look at what is happening.
Benefits of Cover Crops
Prevent soil erosion – Both the mulch and root systems reduce erosion from wind, snow and rain by keeping the soil in place.
Conserve soil moisture – The roots allow moisture to penetrate deeper into the root zone by loosening the soil. The leafy plant mulch reduces the amount of moisture lost from the surface of the soil.
Increase soil organic matter – The mulch and roots decompose into organic material, feeding beneficial micro-organisms and supporting soil biology.
Reduce synthetic fertilizer needs – Decomposition releases nutrients in a more plant available form, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. Often, after a season or two the only fertilizers needed are compost and cover crops!
Fix or increase available nitrogen in soil – Legumes (clover, pea and vetch) fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, further reducing the need for synthetic, commercial nitrogen in a bag. Several cover crop grains scavenge or keep unused nutrients from leaching out of the soil, releasing them next season in a more plant-available form.
Loosen and improve soil structure – The extensive root systems grow both deep and wide, creating tunnels and channels in the soil allowing air and moisture through. This also makes movement by the micro-organisms easier.
Increase soil biology and micro-biology – Earthworms and many smaller organisms feed on the plant matter, converting it to a rich and natural fertilizer perfect for the plants to use. The increased plant matter feeds more soil organisms, creating a larger and healthier population.
Provides habitat for beneficial insects – The plants and flowers offer nectar and pollen to pollinators and beneficial insects while providing habitat and shelter. Your gardens production improves while the amount of destructive pests drops.
Weed suppression – Happens at almost every stage of growth with cover crops. The sprouts release auxins or plant hormones which encourage other seeds to remain dormant. The speedy cover crop germination will often grow as fast as weeds and slow them down. Then they shade the soil as they grow, further reducing weed growth. The mulch covers and shades the soil after frost kill or mowing, and its decomposition slows weed seed germination.
Planting Cover Crops
Planting cover crops in your garden is surprisingly quick and easy. You can plant a 10 x 10 garden in about 5 minutes. First, rake the soil to loosen it, then scatter handfuls of seed evenly across the soil. Rake the mixture in, making sure the seed has a light cover of soil, water well and you are finished!