When you hear the words "cover crops," your first thought is that they're probably only grown on farms and in extensive gardens that take up a great deal of space. We don't blame you — it’s easy to come to that conclusion when most articles on the subject speak of using them on "acres" of land. While you may not need cover crops to battle erosion like a more substantial garden or farm would, there are still plenty of benefits you can reap from planting them in your own small garden.
As mentioned previously, cover crops help prevent soil erosion. Some gardens (especially those located in hilly or mountainous areas) may have a problem with this, and planting cover crops after you harvest is a great solution. Cover crops also work well as a weed barrier. They prevent weeds from taking hold in the area simply because they were there first, meaning they can monopolize the nutrients that weeds need to survive. One thing to be mindful of is that some of your cover crops could start acting like weeds and take over your garden if not they're not harvested before going to seed.
Cover crops can also help break up your soil if it’s compacted or heavy. The put organic materials into the ground and help loosen it all up. Plus, cover crops often have roots that go really deep, so they'll probably do a better job of loosening the earth than you would with a rototiller. Long roots will also help the microbial organisms living deep down in the soil thrive.
Cover crops often improve the fertility of the soil they're planted in, because they return essential nutrients to it. Planting them annually will definitely reduce the amount of natural amendments, compost, and manure you have to add to your soil. Note that the type of cover crop you choose to cultivate can also determine which nutrients are put into the ground. For example, planting a legume cover crop will add some nitrogen back into the dirt.
Planting Cover Crops
For the most part, you’ll plant all cover crops in the same manner, no matter which specific varieties you choose to grow. You’ll want to gently rake up the surface of the area you’re planting them in to give the seeds a better chance of germinating. Then, sprinkle the seeds around that area (no need to worry about making rows or having a certain number of seeds per spot). You’ll then want to rake the area again to cover the seeds with some soil and keep away the birds. Adding a light layer of straw or hay over them can be helpful as well.
Cover crops can be planted either right after you harvest or around your other plants before the harvest to give your fruits and veggies an excellent chance of coming in before the end of the growing season. If you opt to plant them before the harvest, you'll want to make sure you time everything right. Plant hardier varieties about a month before frost is expected in your area, and put their less cold-hardy counterparts in the ground a month before that.
When spring rolls around, you can expect some of your cover crops to come back, so be sure to mow them down or harvest them before they start to flower. You can harvest them by cutting them and using the cuttings as mulch or adding them to your compost heap. Pulling your cover crops will also allow you to plant your garden right away.
Small Garden Cover Crops
There are some cover crops that work particularly well in smaller areas. Here are a few you can think about planting in your garden:
The aptly named winter rye is a very hardy cover crop that you can use to your advantage. It's hardy to temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter months. If you want it to grow quickly, you’ll want to plant this crop in the later summer or early fall. You can expect it to rebound in the spring, when you can till it back into the dirt a couple of weeks before you plan on putting in your garden.
While this isn't actually wheat, it’s a great cover crop that looks like wheat. It doesn’t take much to grow and will mature in your garden in about six weeks time, making it excellent for controlling weeds. You can till this cover crop back into the soil about 40 days after you’ve planted it to receive the full extent of its benefits, or you can pull it out in the spring, when it'll easily come out of the ground. Just make sure that you don’t let it flower, as the seeds will try to take over your garden.
Red clover is actually a legume, so it’s ideal if you're looking to add nitrogen back into the dirt. It’s also easy enough to grow when planted it in the early spring. Since red clover's flowers are edible, you can also allow them to grow. Just try to make sure you harvest them before they go to seed, as this can be an invasive plant to have in your garden.
Stop overlooking the prospect of growing cover crops just because you don’t have a large gardening space. You could be missing out on a lot of great benefits — all you need to do is put in a minimal amount of work.