COVER CROPS FOR YOUR EDIBLE GARDEN

In your reading about how to vegetable garden, you might come across a thing called “cover crops.” To me, that always sounded like something that a huge commercial farmer would use, not a simple backyard gardener like me. But cover crops are great for gardens of any size and in nearly any climate, because they perform a variety of duties in keeping your garden healthy and thriving. Better yet, it’s as simple as sowing a packet of seeds — if you’ve over-seeded a bare patch of your lawn, you can sow a cover crop.

 

First things first, though — what exactly is a cover crop? Cover crops are plants that put back into the soil what other plants take out. They are not harvested for food; rather, they are turned back over into the soil at the end of their growing season where nutrients are added to the soil as they decompose. So, cover crops are grown not for your food, but for the soil’s food.

Edible plants like vegetables and herbs use a lot of your soil’s nutrients in order to set fruit or leaves, so it’s our job to add those nutrients back in, and one great way to do that is with cover crops. So, say you’re at the end of your vegetable season, and you want your garden to rest over the winter. Don’t just pull out your summer and fall veggies and call it good, though — bare soil invites erosion, weeds, and loss of precious nutrients, so let’s cover it up. Here’s a list the three main cover crop options — you can order seed online or purchase it at your local feed store or garden center.

Legumes: Legume crop covers include clover (crimson, red, Dutch white, berseem), hairy vetch, fava beans, bell beans and Austrian winter peas are the masters at adding valuable nitrogen back into the soil.

Grasses: Oats, barley, winter rye, and annual rye grass are cold hardy crops that suppress weeds and add tons of organic matter back into the soil. Their root systems are also great at breaking up compacted soil or clay soil, the death knoll for a healthy garden.

Other Crop Covers: Buckwheat, oilseed radish and mustard add phosphorus and create positive soil drainage by breaking up compaction.

 

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