What Are Cover Crops?
Farmers and gardeners alike can benefit from growing cover crops. Cover crops can help improve soil health, prevent erosion, and provide nutrients for future crops.
These plants are typically planted between harvests or for winter protection. They help to provide nutrients for your vegetables and the soil they grow in.
There are many other benefits that they provide throughout the season. A cover crop is a type of crop that is planted in order to protect the ground from erosion and to enrich the soil.
Certain soil problems can be solved by planting these fast-growing species with known beneficial properties in rotation with cash crops. In other words, cash crops are the plants we grow that we can sell for money.
They provide solutions that improve the environment by addressing problems such as soil loss due to erosion, depletion of nutrients in the soil, and difficult-to-control weeds.
After the plants grow for a set amount of time, they die from the cold weather or are mowed down, creating a protective layer.
Instead of using mulch, you can till under foliage and roots to add nutrients to the soil and improve its makeup.
This system also decreases the necessity for synthetic fertilizers, and helps with pest management and weed suppression.
Cultivation and History
Cover crops have been used for centuries to improve the quality of exhausted soils by replenishing nutrients.
Crop rotation is a process where farmers grow different types of crops in a particular order in the same field. This process replenishes and rejuvenates tired fields.
Virgil listed the virtues of bees in his first century BCE saga, “The Georgics.”
He recommended using “golden grains,” “slender vetch-crop,” and “lupins sour” to replenish the soil after cash crops were harvested.
George Washington was a savvy farmer who rotated buckwheat and red clover with commodity crops such as wheat.
The practice of green manuring began centuries ago, but it all but died out in the post-WWII era. The Green Revolution led to taller, stronger wheat plants that produced more grain than ever before.
The system used designer, high-yielding seeds that required water-based, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides for improved harvests.
This text is discussing how the industrial revolution employed mechanization on a large scale in order to increase production. This was done through the use of massive irrigation systems and combustion engine tractors.
This system provides convenience and enhanced yields, which were quickly embraced by both the large-scale farmer and the backyard gardener.
Although the increased productivity was beneficial, it also came with numerous hidden problems.
One consequence of this is the pollution that occurs every summer as pounds of synthetic nitrates and phosphate leach into the runoff that ends up in our rivers and streams, then travel down the Mississippi River, causing dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Green Revolution had an interesting and good effect of also causing the start of the modern organic farming movement. A small group of farmers who were in favor of the new agricultural model embraced it while a larger group of farmers who were not in favor of the model looked to the wisdom of cover crops to renew and replenish soils.
More large-scale agricultural operations are beginning to see the benefits of crop rotation and are incorporating it into their management model.
Then, there are the benefits to the immediate and extended environment that come from cover cropping right in our own gardens.
The benefits of cover crops are many and varied. Your garden can be a healthy place!
Easy Erosion Control
Harsh winter weather can quickly strip away topsoil from beds and fields. Cover crops are a great way to prevent erosion during the winter.
Winter cover is a type of living mulch that is planted in late summer or early fall. It is either winter-killed or cold-hardy.
The leaves of plants that have been killed by the winter cold form a mulch on top of the soil.
Winter-hardy plants are able to withstand the cold weather and continue to grow once the days start getting longer. The farmers till under the remainders of the cover crops in spring to incorporate them back into the soil as nutrients.
Seeds sown in winter form a living mass of roots and foliage that help anchor the soil in place, preventing erosion during heavy storms.
A Biodiverse Environment
Healthy garden soils contain many different types of bacteria and fungi, some of which help plants grow by recycling nutrients.
The micro-critters mentioned in the text feed on carbohydrates that are released by plants through their roots. Some bacteria, such as the nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria, live in symbiotic relationships with plants. These bacteria live on or in the roots of the plants and trade nutrients with the plant in exchange for something that the plant needs.
Healthy microbial colonies are a food source for beneficial insects and arachnids like beetles, earthworms, and spiders. And crops that flower, like clover, attract pollinators, providing them with nectar early in the season, which is important for flying insects like bees and butterflies.
The insects in your backyard attract birds and small mammals, which contribute to a diverse soil food web. All of these animals help maintain your fruit, flower, herb, and vegetable crops.
Enrich Soil Fertility
Planting certain crops before or after your vegetables can actually improve the soil’s fertility, even though it may seem counterintuitive.
The fertilization of the earth’s soil is accomplished by nitrogen-fixing, nitrogen scavenging, and nutrient cycling.
Nitrogen-fixing plants like beans, clover, lupins, and peas form a symbiotic relationship with the Rhizobium bacteria. The bacteria colonize the roots and are associated with the formation of nodules. In the nodules, the bacteria convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into forms that the plant can use.
Nitrogen-scavenging crops, such as oats, radishes, and cereal rye, trap free nitrogen in the soil that would otherwise be lost to leaching or runoff.
They help to keep nitrates in the soil by preventing erosion, and not in a runoff where they can contaminate waterways and create algae blooms and dead zones.
Nutrient cycling is a process that occurs due to the repeated interactions between different elements in nature. After termination and tilling, plant materials release valuable nitrogen and other elements like carbon, phosphorous, and sulfur back into the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
When plants release their sugars into the soil, it helps speed up decomposition by attracting bacteria and fungi.
In turn, the presence of these earthworms attracts other organisms that speed up plant breakdown and release nutrients back into the soil in bioavailable forms. This, in turn, benefits the next crop that utilizes these newly-available nutrients.
Improve Soil Aeration, Water Infiltration, and Water Retention
Plants that have a lot of biomass typically have deep, complex root systems. This helps with aeration, water infiltration, and water retention.
The presence of organic matter also helps to prevent soil compaction and crusting, keeping the soil friable and better able to support plant life by allowing oxygen and water to move freely through it.
A biomass that is healthy can help to trap surface water from rainfall. This can increase root zone infiltration and reduce moisture evaporation.
Under-tilled plant residues create healthy, richly textured soil that absorbs water easily, transports it deeper, and holds moisture longer in dry times.
The roots of plants like forage radishes go deep and are good at breaking up and aerating tough soils, making them lighter and easier to manage. This also creates a healthy environment for the veggies planted the following season.
Soil Conditioning and Stabilization
Cover crops are an excellent way to improve the structure and stability of soil. They are easy to use and require minimal effort.
The deep, thick roots help to break up clay soils and hardpan by going through the thick crust of earth that can form over finer, deeper layers of soil in newly plowed beds.
When used as green manure, the decay of plant matter will add soil organic matter which will improve the tilth, fertility and stability of the soil.
The process of aggregation arranges soil particles into clumps, with organic materials like glomalin binding them together. This improves the structure of the soil, making it better able to resist erosion and improving its water-holding capacity.
Glomalin is a substance that is created by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and it acts as a glue to hold aggregates together in a stable structure.
What Is Clover?
The four-leaf clover is a symbol of luck that most people are familiar with, but did you know that there are over 300 species of clover? Clover is believed to have originated in Europe, and it has now spread to every continent except Antarctica.
Clovers are flowering plants that are closely related to peas. They can grow in many different types of environments, including grasslands, meadows, rainforests, and suburban lawns. Clover is often used as a cover crop, livestock feed, pasture for commercial beekeeping, and forage for different types of wildlife. Native Americans used leaves, roots, and seeds for food.
Why Does Clover Make A Good Cover Crop?
Clover makes an excellent cover crop for several reasons. The first is its affinity for nitrogen fixation. While other plants rely on the soil’s nitrogen, clover has a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria that allows it to fix its own nitrogen. The bacteria live on the roots of the clover plant and take nitrogen from the air. They convert it into a form that the plant can use. Adding nitrogen to the soil surface without the use of fertilizers or other amendments is important for gardeners and farmers.
Clover can fix a lot of nitrogen per acre, sometimes up to 200 pounds. The exact amount of clover per acre that should be planted depends on the conditions under which it will be planted, the local climate, and the variety of clovers chosen.
Clover is a good choice for a cover crop because it grows close to the ground and prevents soil erosion and weed growth. Clover is a fast-growing plant that gets a head start on other plants and newly germinated weeds in the spring, naturally preventing them from taking over. The quick growth of weeds helps to control them while also fighting erosion by quickly covering a large area of the garden. Winter-hardy varieties of crimson clover, red clover, and arrowleaf clover can improve soil health and protect against the heavy rain and snow of winter if planted in late summer or early fall, before the first frost.
Another reason clover is an effective cover crop is that it can be used as green manure. Green manure is a type of fertilizer made from dead vegetation that is either left on top of a garden bed or turned into soil. It helps improve the quality of the soil by adding essential nutrients and organic matter. This type of tillage provides many benefits, such as breaking down and keeping nutrients near the soil surface, acting as a mulch to protect the soil from erosion (if left on top), building organic matter, and providing a home for beneficial insects and decomposers.
This text covers the three main ways gardeners can use green manure, which will be discussed in more detail in the harvest section. These methods are “chop and drop,” tilling the crop into the soil, and using the cuttings in the compost bin.
The ability of cover crops to bring in beneficial insects is often overlooked. Clover blooms early in the spring, which is beneficial for native bees, honey bees, and other pollinators. If you want to have a healthy garden, it’s important to create a space that is welcoming to a variety of insects. Having a diverse population of insects will help you prevent pests and attract pollinators.
Planting Clover As A Cover Crop
There are many different types of clover seed available, and it is very easy to sow, so planting it is one of the easiest things you will have to do in your garden! To ensure your plants are healthy, there are a few things to keep in mind when planting your seeds.
Location, Sowing, And General Care
Although clover can grow in many different types of soil, it usually does best in soils that are well-drained and slightly acidic. The plants will do better in full sun, but can still grow somewhat in shade. They will have the best chance to fix nitrogen in full sun, however. This plant can thrive in many different types of gardens, whether they are raised beds or in the ground.
The type of plant you choose should be based on the climate of the area you live in. Crimson clover tends to be adaptable to most climates. Red clover is best suited to warm climates, whereas white clover does better in cooler, wetter environments.
If you want your summer ground cover to mature properly, you should plant it during early spring, around the time of the last frost. The best time to plant in order to protect your soil over the winter is six to eight weeks before the frost date.
Scatter the seeds over the garden and then lightly rake the soil. The best way to ensure that clover seeds germinate is to only bury them a little bit. You should only push the seed down ¼”. Make sure to keep the soil moist until the seedlings start growing more actively. Most clovers can handle a lack of water, but they grow best if they get between half an inch to an inch of water per week.
You don’t need to worry much about taking care of clover since they’re rugged plants that do well in many different environments. If you grow this plant as a cover crop, it will be less risky since you are meant to cut it down before harvest, unlike other plants in the garden. The main cause of problems is having too much moisture which creates an environment where fungi can thrive. To avoid this issue, plant a variety of crops that are suited for your area and avoid soils that are overly moist. -Most gardeners are more worried about clover accidentally reseeding an area of their garden than anything else. This can be prevented by carefully monitoring the growth and cutting down or turning in the plants before they manage to seed.