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Cover Crops

Something that we have been implementing recently year is cover crops.

What are cover crops? Well, they are just as they sound - a way to cover the soil in the off seasons when the soil would usually be left bare. They are extremely beneficial to a regenerative system. Keeping roots in the soil through cover crops leads to a host of benefits such as improving soil health, decreasing erosion, increasing water holding capacity, aerating compacted soil, carbon sequestration, to control and suppress pests and weeds, attracting pollinators and increased bio-diversity!


Different kinds of  cover crops offer a variety of eco-system services.

 

Clovers and legumes can fix nitrogen! This means they have a special ability to take atmospheric nitrogen and fix it into the soil through nodules in their root systems. 


Hairy vetch can increase crop disease resistance and prolong leaf photosynthesis of the following crop.


Crops like buckwheat or sorghum are heat loving summer crops that can be used to suppress weeds and and "clean up" the soil before planting your fall successions. 


Deep rooted grasses such as rye can collect excess nutrients left after harvesting and help prevent nutrients from leaching into the ground or running-off with surface water.


Perennial cover crops such as creeping red fescue, rye grass and clovers serve as a living mulch and can be planted between rows of perennials such as berries or grapes. They can help reduce soil erosion, catch nutrients, fix nitrogen, retain and increasing water holding capacity of the soil and improve soil health.


Amaranth is a dynamic accumulator. This means that it can gather certain nutrients from the soil and store them in a high concentration and more bioavailable form in their tissues.


Brassicas such as daikon can brake up compacted soil and provide aeration. 


Cover crops with flowers such as hairy vetch, clovers and alfalfa attract and provide a habitat for pollinators.


For the home gardener cover crops can be implemented too even on a scale as small as a few planter beds. Here are some great techniques to add cover crops to your garden itinerary.


 If you have a patch or rows of perennials - use them as a living mulch. You can even apply this technique for annual crops that will be in the ground throughout the season such as onions, squash and kale. Using Dutch clover is my favorite. If you do this - make sure your plants are established first before planting the clover.


You can plant a cover crop in your garden either in early spring before planting your garden, or in the fall after harvest. For the home gardener it's best to stick with annual cover crops that are easily worked into the soil. Some that are best suited are oats, field peas, mustard, barley, daikon radish (for compacted soils) and berseem clover. 

If you are planting your cover crop in the spring - sow as soon as the ground is workable. Field peas and oats are a great fast growing spring option. When established (45-60 days), chop, mow or weed whack it down and cover with a tarp for a few weeks before planting. Spring cover crops can work in areas of the garden that crops don't go in until late May or June. If planting in the fall, plant your cover crop right after your last harvest. Cover crops generally need 4 weeks to establish before the first hard winter frost. The breakdown of the cover crop will happen naturally over the winter and early spring.

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