When we think of gardening, we might think just of planting seeds and then harvesting their products some weeks later, a process which draws nutrients and fertility from the soil. But every year the nutrients we harvest in the form of fruits and vegetables must be replenished or else your soil will become depleted and be useless for growing. Cover crops are one method of caring for and restoring health to your garden soil. They are often planted in the late summer or early fall, after your main crops are harvested. Depending on what you choose to plant, they might help improve soil condition and fertility, smother weeds, prevent erosion, or even decrease the likelihood of pests and diseases. Below are just a few of the more common.
Buckwheat—Excellent weed control, grows quickly (1 week to substantial green and just 30 days to flower), even mature plants are easy to kill by pulling or cutting down with a hoe. Plant directly in dead plant material a couple of weeks later.
Annual rye grass—Good weed control and minimizes erosion and soil compaction in high traffic area. Plant in fall before soil temperatures drop below 60F and till under when plants are 6”-9” tall and before stems toughen and seed heads develop. May be good to pair with a legume.
Daikon or oilseed radish—Long radish roots will break up compacted soils. Choose a variety that will winter kill in your area and plant without needing to till or remove plant material in the spring.
Clovers—Plant when weather cools in fall and till when weather begins to warm in spring for maximum nitrogen.
Bush beans—Time planting so that first frost arrives during blossoming (about two weeks before harvest) in order to maximize nitrogen. If frost is late, kill before bearing pods and seeds.
For more information and tailored advice, try out this cover crop selection tool. Select your management goal, planting time and how long you want the crop in place and it will give you your best choices, along with basic instructions and where to purchase.