Red Clover Field

COMBINING COVER CROPS FOR HEALTHIER SOIL

Farmers have long since recognized (and utilized) the benefits of cover crops — from suppressing weeds and increasing yields to improving nitrogen content in the soil and plants as well as reducing nutrient runoff. That’s a lot of benefit from a crop of clover, oats, buckwheat, or millet. What farmers — and gardeners — are now learning is that if you combine different types of cover crops rather than use just one, you can dramatically increase the payoff.

So, it begs the question — what type of cover crop mixes should you be looking for? It depends upon what you are trying to accomplish, but here are some noteworthy combos that can make your garden even healthier.

Bee on Clover
Millet Field

FIND THE IDEAL COVER CROP FOR YOUR GARDEN

What’s your cover crop goal?

Because not all cover crops provide the same benefits, you’ll want to look for a mix that addresses the issues you’re having or the goals you want to accomplish in your garden. However, it’s a delicate balance — your aim is to choose a mix that contains complementary, rather than competing, cover crops.

Nitrogen uptake + compaction busting: The radish, crimson clover, and triticale combo works well here. While the last two cover crops help to cycle nitrogen (making it available for the next crop), the radish’s taproot busts up soil compaction.

Weed suppression + nitrogen uptake: Try oats and hairy vetch, a powerful cocktail that not only holds weeds down but allows the next crop you plant to utilize soil nitrogen (nitrogen uptake). A side benefit? The hairy vetch is pretty good at erosion control, too.

Nitrogen fix + organic matter + weed suppression: A pea and oat mixture might work for you. Peas provide a nitrogen “fix” to the soil (and add valuable organic matter) while the oats suppress weeds and act as a “nurse crop” for what you plant next. Nurse crops help aid other crops in getting established, but the oats also provide a kind of living trellis for the pea vines to grow upon.

Nitrogen fix + Pollinator magnet: A mix of clovers can do the trick! Red, ladino, and sweet clover work their magic together by adding valuable nitrogen to the soil while providing valuable food for pollinators like bees.

Vetch Field
Buckwheat Cover Crop

Can I create my own cover crop mix?

While many mixes are readily available and take the guesswork out of successful combos, it is possible to create your own custom mix. Take the following into consideration, and call your county extension office if you need assistance.

  • Make a list of the top 2-3 garden/plant/soil issues you’d like to handle with your cover crops
  • Research various crops that address your top concerns
  • Narrow your cover crop mix down to 2-5 different crops
  • Ensure that your cover crop combo is compatible in terms of planting times and complementary growth habits. For example, you want to avoid planting a mix of two cover crops that are both slow to grow, as that can allow weeds to take hold in the meantime. Similarly, a cover crop that puts nitrogen into the soil should not be planted with a cover crop that takes nitrogen up for later use — they will work against each other and you’ll be disappointed with the result.
Combining Cover Crops pinterest image
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