by Jennifer Poindexter
Have you ever wondered how to use cover crops in your garden? Whether you need to revamp a large garden area, or if you’re trying to garden organically, utilizing cover crops could be a great benefit to you.
If you’re new to this idea, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to walk you through the purpose of using cover crops, introduce you to different growing times of cover crops, and explain how you can use them to benefit your garden. There is a great deal to learn when using cover crops in your home garden. Let’s get started!
What is the Purpose of a Cover Crop?
Cover crops can help you in many ways. The first way cover crops help in the garden is to put nutrients into your dirt that might be missing because it’s virgin ground or from years of growing crops.
Nitrogen is a nutrient every garden needs. All plants use it, so many gardeners struggle to keep it in the soil.
A cover crop can be nitrogen rich. When terminated, and placed on the dirt to decompose, it adds this sought-after nutrient back into your soil. Due to decomposition, the cover crop releases the nitrogen slowly.
Therefore, your plants can use it over time instead of having a large dose distributed at one time.
The next purpose of a cover crop is to mulch your garden. Mulch is beneficial in deterring weeds and retaining moisture. It can also help insulate the roots of your crops.
If you’re tired of purchasing all the mulch your garden uses, and are looking for a different option, cover crops can help. You should still use mulch in addition to cover crops, but it might help reduce the amount you purchase.
Once the cover crops have served their purpose, and are cut down, they can be left on your soil, as a mulch, to help retain moisture.
Finally, cover crops are great for attracting pollinators. If you’d like more pollinators to visit your garden space, plant things which invite them.
These are a few of the reasons you might want to consider utilizing cover crops in your garden.
Different Growing Times for Cover Crops
There are some cover crops which can produce quickly. These crops don’t have to reach maturity to serve their purpose.
In fact, most gardeners don’t want the cover crops to reach full maturity. Therefore, some options can reach the point of service within a month or two.
However, there are other cover crops which take more time to reach their point in the growth cycle where they can benefit your garden.
Choose for yourself which type of cover crop would serve your needs the best. An example of cover crops, which require a longer time in your garden, are grain and legume crops.
These choices are great for adding nitrogen to your soil. You could grow a pea variety, which falls into this category, to receive this benefit.
If you need a crop which requires less time in your garden, to serve its purpose, consider growing buckwheat.
Crops which grow faster and thicker, don’t spend as much time in your garden. However, they can frequently provide nutrients to your soil while combating weeds.
Consider what you need from your cover crop. You must also consider how much time you have until you need your growing area back in action. This will help you decide which options for cover crops are best for you.
Three Categories of Cover Crops
Cover crops generally fall into three categories. These categories are: grains, legumes, and broadleaf crops.
Grains consist of oats, wheat, and annual grasses. They help aerate compacted soil due to their complex root systems.
Legumes are crops such as peas or clovers. These are excellent sources of nitrogen and some can grow quickly to revive depleted soil.
Broadleaf plants consist of gorgeous annuals such as alyssum. If you’re unfamiliar with this flower, it’s durable, self-sows, and produces gorgeous small blooms.
Many broadleaf plants are thicker, so when they grow in your garden, they’re great at choking out weeds while providing nutrients to your soils.
There are many things to consider when using cover crops. Look at each category and see what benefits you need most.
Then you can shop for cover crops by the category which provides most of what you need in the time you can afford.
How to Use a Cover Crop
Now that you’ve seen many of your options, when using cover crops, let’s discuss how to use a cover crop in your garden.
You should start by deciding what your garden needs. Does it need nutrients in a hurry? Are you battling weeds and need a crop to help? Are you trying to provide rest to your soil during a time when it’s not in use?
Once you figure this out, you should be able to narrow down a cover crop mixture which could work for your garden space.
You can choose to go with a single cover crop as well. Many times, gardeners will choose a grain and legume, or broadleaf, combination to meet multiple needs at one time.
After your crops are sorted out, plant them in your growing space. Be sure to do research on the exact crops that you’re growing.
This will let you know how to handle the next steps of the process. You should allow the crops to grow until they start to form a head or a full bloom.
The idea is to terminate the plant before it has time to sow any seeds. However, you must understand the crops you’ve planted.
If you plant a variety which must form a bloom, by cutting it too soon, you’re pruning the plant, and it will regrow.
Yet, there are some crops, you don’t want them to form a complete bloom because they resow easily.
When the plant has reached the proper time for termination, you can mow the cover crop, use a weed eater to knock it down, or till the crop up.
If you choose a cover crop which is slim and tender, at the time of termination, it will break down faster than those which have large stalks that are tough.
When choosing a cover crop, take into consideration the amount of time the crop will have to break down. If you need your growing space quickly, after the plants are terminated, you need a crop which breaks down easily.
If your garden area won’t be in use right after termination occurs, you can choose a crop which takes longer to decompose.
Using a cover crop requires proper planning. Once you’re over the initial hurdle, it’s a simple process which brings many benefits.
Rules to Using Cover Crops
There are a few basic things you should consider when picking and using a cover crop. If you’re in the middle of summer and have a garden which didn’t perform, you can dig up the unproductive crop.
Take its place with a cover crop. Buckwheat is a great option to grow over the summer months to deter pests from moving into your grow space.
If you’re trying to let your garden breathe over winter, plant a legume, or grain, which can handle the cold. Cast the seeds over the field, and they will go dormant during winter.
However, when spring arrives, they’ll grow and produce the nutrients you need them to before you cut the crop down.
Once the cover crop is terminated, you should be able to plant in late spring. Another general rule to follow is to ensure you consider the root systems of the cover crop you use.
For instance, winter rye is known for having deep roots. This can make the plant hard to remove from the garden at time of termination.
Ensure you have the proper tools to remove the cover crop, or you could have a negative experience with this gardening technique. If you’re working with minimal tools, go with an easier plant such as clover.
Our third general rule is you should still mulch your crops even after using a cover crop. You may not have to apply as much, but it will help the quality of your soil.
Therefore, this can help you rebuild and maintain healthy soil and at a faster rate than if you only used cover crops.
Finally, you can use a cover crop as much or as little as you desire. If you have a busy season that you don’t have time to plant a cover crop, skip it.
When life slows down, and you decide to plant a cover crop again, go for it. It isn’t something you must maintain once you start, unless you choose to.
These are a few general rules which might help you when diving into using cover crops around your garden areas.
Things to Consider When Picking a Cover Crop
We’ve discussed many things you should take into consideration to help you choose the right cover crop.
It’s time to discuss what you must consider about your future gardens when selecting the plants for this gardening technique. The first thing to consider is what is going into your garden after the cover crop is removed.
Are you planting crops which love a specific nutrient? For instance, if you know you’re planting nitrogen loving plants, use clover or soybeans as a cover crop.
If you know that you’re planting crops which need phosphorus, grow buckwheat.
The other thing you must consider about your garden, prior to choosing a cover crop, is you must know whether you’re growing cole crops in the garden space.
If you’re planning on it, be mindful of certain cover crops. Winter rye doesn’t get along with cole crops as it releases a chemical during decomposition.
This can severely harm, or kill, any cole crops planted where winter rye was grown previously. Instead, use a form of wheat to help an area where cole crops will grow.
You must think about your future garden prior to planting cover crops, or they could end up causing more harm than good.
Common Cover Crops
We can’t wrap up this introduction to cover crops without sharing a few of the common choices and when they’re typically grown in a garden.
If you need cover crops to protect a plot over the summer, choose from cowpeas, buckwheat, soybeans, or sorghum.
If you need a cover crop for the cooler months in the year, consider growing annual rye, clover, or wheat.
Hopefully, these ideas will inspire you to begin growing cover crops in your garden when it isn’t in use. With the information you’ve been provided, you should be able to start your journey to restoring and caring for your soil.
You’ll need to do more specific research, once you’ve chosen a cover crop, to ensure you grow the plant properly. However, this should help you understand how you can use a cover crop and how they work when applied to your garden.
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