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Cover Crops: A Comprehensive Guide for Soil Health, Mulch, and More

Updated: Mar 21

Cover crops are indispensable tools in sustainable gardening. As the seasons change and gardens lay fallow, Gardens of Eatin' has observed the flourishing growth of fall-planted crimson clover, winter rye, and Austrian winter peas. These cover crops are visually pleasing and serve multiple functions, including green manure, mulch, and even edible bonuses such as sweet pea shoots for salads.


This guide outlines selecting, sowing, and managing cover crops for optimized soil health and plant growth.


Criteria for Selecting Cover Crops


Choosing the right cover crop depends on your specific needs—soil fertility, weed suppression, or providing a habitat for pollinators. Consider your goals, the time of year, and how long the cover crop will remain in the ground.


Winter Nitrogen Fixers: Creating Soil Fertility


Clover Varieties (Crimson, White, and Red)

  • Sowing Time: 6-8 weeks before the average first frost date.

  • Benefits: It fixes nitrogen and boosts soil fertility for spring planting.

  • Management: Mow once or twice when half of the crop is flowering. Allow residue to decompose for two weeks before planting vegetables.

Hairy Vetch

  • Sowing Time: 6-8 weeks before the average first frost date.

  • Benefits: Nitrogen-fixing, soil organic matter building, weed suppression.

  • Management: Grows well in cereal grain mixtures; ideal for spring weed control.


Austrian Winter Peas

  • Sowing Time: 4-6 weeks before the average first frost date.

  • Benefits: Good nitrogen fixer; reduces the risk of winter kill when planted with rye, oats, or barley.

  • Management: Cut and turn under at full bloom for maximum nitrogen.


Winter Soil Builders and Subsoil Looseners


Winter Rye (Cereal Rye)

  • Sowing Time: 6 weeks before to 2 weeks after the average first frost date.

  • Benefits: Increases soil organic matter.

  • Management: Mow when 12 inches tall or half the crop has immature seed heads. Allow residue to decompose for two weeks before planting vegetables.

Oats

  • Sowing Time: 8-10 weeks before the average first frost date.

  • Benefits: Forms a winter mulch, preventing erosion.

  • Management: Decomposes to increase soil organic matter after being killed by hard frosts.


Edible Cover Crops for Winter


Sustain your garden and diet by planting winter greens like Seven Top turnips, Lacinato kale, Red Russian kale, Southern Giant Curled mustard greens, and Tatsoi. Sow in August or September to provide healthy, edible foliage throughout winter.



Warm Season Cover Crops: Filling Summer Gaps


Sorghum-Sudan Grass Hybrid

  • Sowing Time: Spring and summer, after soil warms up.

  • Benefits: Organic matter addition, weed, and nematode suppression.


Soybeans (Edamame) and Southern Peas (Cowpeas)

  • Sowing Time: Early to mid-summer.

  • Benefits: Nitrogen fixing.

  • Management: Mow before pod formation or when pods are still green.


Buckwheat

  • Sowing Time: Spring through early fall.

  • Benefits: Quick establishment, weed suppression, pollinator attraction.

  • Management: Mow before hard seeds form; killed by frost.


When to Mow or Turn Under Cover Crops


Mowing or turning under cover crops requires strategic timing. Optimal results are achieved when about half the crop is flowering but before seeding. Allow 2-4 weeks for cover crop residue to decompose for direct seeding. Accelerate decomposition by adding mature compost or compost tea before turning under.


Practical Tips for Home Gardeners


Cover crops can be easily managed in home gardens with simple tools like a hand sickle, scythe, or mower. You may incorporate your cover crops into the soil using a hoe or broadfork for quicker decomposition and minimal nitrogen loss.


Regardless of the method used, cover crops are essential in sustainable gardening practices, adding significant value to any permaculture consultant's toolkit.


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