When anyone asks what the “secret” is to a successful garden – it doesn’t take long for us to get to the topic of cover crops.

A thick stand of a cover crop holds the soil together and keeps weed seeds out
A thick stand of a cover crop holds the soil together and keeps weed seeds out

Many people think of a cover crop as something that the “big farmers” use in their massive fields. But the truth is – they work wonders in keeping gardens of all shapes and sizes productive year after year.

Simply put – cover crops are vital in creating healthy, productive soil in your garden. And put simply – Great Soil = A Great Garden!

So…what is a cover crop?

In a nutshell – a cover crop is the planting of legumes or grains such as clover, vetch, annual rye, buckwheat and more that are designed to protect the soil and give back valuable nutrients. Instead of harvesting the crop – the entire mass of the plant is incorporated back into the soil in the spring to add vitality, nutrients and organic matter.

So now that we have established what constitutes a cover crop – here are 6 great reasons you should plant one this fall:

1.       Keeps Valuable Top Soil In Place

First and foremost – a cover crop keeps soil from being exposed throughout the winter months.   Harsh winter rain, snow and winds can whisk away the top layer of your soil (usually the best in the garden), and leave your garden with far less productive soil next season.

2.       Loosens The Soil

The roots of a cover crop will go deep down into the dirt and help break up heavy soils, making it easier for next year’s crop to put down deep roots. That means less watering – better protection against drought, and healthier plants.  Our annual rye cover crop easily loosened the top 4 to 8″ of our garden soil last year with its penetrating roots – making for a great crop this year.

3.      Adds Valuable Nitrogen To The Soil

Cover crops are the key to recharging the available amount of nitrogen in your garden.

Crops like these peppers take valuable nutrients from the soil - and cover crops can put them back
Crops like these peppers take valuable nutrients from the soil – and cover crops can put them back

Nitrogen is a key growth component of nearly all vegetable plants – and many, like corn and tomatoes – use up a considerable amount to grow their fruits each year.

The roots of cover crops  – like that of annual rye or clover – work to fix the nitrogen in the soil – making it readily available for next year’s crops. If you have ever had a garden in the same spot that grew well for a few years and then slowly started producing less – the loss of key elements like nitrogen and others are most likely the culprit.  Cover crops  can keep the soil recharged for growth!

4.       Adds Organic Material To Your Soil

Along with adding compost - cover crops are a great way to build soil fertility
Along with adding compost – cover crops are a great way to build soil fertility

When dug back into the soil each spring – cover crops add tremendous amounts of organic material to your garden.  As the cover crop breaks down underneath the soil – all of that bio-mass helps to create a loose, friable soil structure that helps plants to thrive.  Using cover crops and adding compost are THE two best ways to build great soil in your garden! (see: How To Make Great Compost)

5.      Cut Down On Next Year’s Weeds

As an added benefit – cover crops will help to cut down on your weeding in next year’s garden. By keeping your soil covered in a blanket of rich, thick cover crops – weed seeds become crowded out.  In addition – blowing seeds have trouble finding a bare spot of soil to settle in over the winter months – meaning they won’t be there to germinate next year.

6.      It’s Cheap!

Annual rye makes a great inexpensive cover crop!
Annual rye makes a great inexpensive cover crop!

The best part of all – planting a cover crop is inexpensive! For just a few dollars in seed – you can cover your entire garden in a rich luscious cover crop (we used about $8 in annual rye seed last year to cover our entire garden). Far better than spending hundreds of dollars on synthetic soil enhancers and fertilizers that do nothing to build soil structure.

So there you have it – 6 great reasons to plant your own cover crop in your garden or raised beds this fall.  So get out there and get that garden covered! 🙂  If you want to know a little more about cover crops and how to plant – be sure to check out our previous article titled :  “Cover Crop Basics”.

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Happy Gardening!!!  Jim and Mary – Old World Garden Farms

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