Since the existence of the Romans, farmers have used the customary and productive farming technique of planting cover crops. Today, the technique has seen extensive use in fields and home gardens and has provided maximum benefit.
Major benefits of cover crops are enjoyed by planters, both in the short and long term, and they match a variety of goals and needs.
Furthermore, cover crops act as a source of farmyard manure and organic material, act as nitrogen fixers, manage moisture, prevent erosion, attract pollinators, aid in pest control management, and are useful for grazing or as fodder.
This article explains everything from what are cover crops to the growing season and how to sow them in detail.
What Are Cover Crops?
As implied by their name, these are plants that cover soil for certain purposes. In contrast to primary flora, which is cultivated for export or human consumption, subsidiary cover crop species support farmers’ secondary needs. They enhance soil health, boost production, and sustain livestock.
However, this does not imply that these plants are a specific species. The distinction is that these plants are used as vegetation in fall crop varieties. Home growers can plant them in the fall or the summer or winter rains, evenly or between lines. Some need removal and debris management, while others are killed during winter. Additionally, it is highly recommended that you focus on one variety at a time to experience a more fruitful outcome.
Leguminous plants, grasslands, cruciferous vegetables, radishes, onions, etc., are common examples of cover crops. Farming techniques like crop rotation, no-till farming, and sustainable agriculture highly favor this technique.
Types Of Cover Crops
Primarily, there are three categories of cover crops, each with its own distinct features and potential benefits. These are grasses, legumes, and leafy non-legumes. Most of the time, these cover crops do complex things at once, including foraging, avoiding erosion, and improving soil structure.
Grasses are annual crops like oats, maize, corn, wheat, buckwheat, and barley. They produce residues that are simple to manage and grow relatively rapidly. Their robust, erosion-resistant roots have the look of fibrous strands. They cannot fix atmospheric nitrogen, but they accumulate soil nitrogen through the interaction with Azotobacter in the form of nutrients.
As nitrogen-fixing cover crops, legumes are well known for enhancing the nitrogen content of soils. Their robust root system helps combat undesirable undersurface deformation when plants grow large. Additionally, a larger plant may recover more nitrogen than a smaller one. Legumes include plants like hairy vetch, red and white clover, chickpea, alfalfa, and beans.
Non-legume broadleaf plants produce organic manure, replenish soil nitrogen, and stabilize the soil. They usually die in freezing conditions, so no additional removal is necessary. However, non-legumes utilized as fall cover crops need weed suppression before seed dispersal. Root vegetables, fodder radish, turnips, marigolds, mustards, and other garden crops fall within this category.
Cover Crops by Season
Another classification is introduced by the time to plant. Agriculturists distinguish between winter and summer crop varieties with reference. The management of each of them varies slightly, and each has its pros and cons.
Winter Cover Crops
These are mainly grains that have been planted following commercial agricultural harvests in the fall. They are not meant to produce yields; rather, they serve as a natural ground "cover" till spring seeding.
To grow cover crops, sufficient heat in the fall and enough precipitation in the spring are needed.
In addition to reducing nutrient leakage and preventing soil erosion, they also consume nutrients and control weed growth. However, remember their seeds are more costly, potentially difficult to terminate, can have a lethal effect, and may hinder the development of primary cultures. Diseases and infections are protected by plant material, but they can also have the complete opposite effect.
Home growers and farmers should take into account the vegetation's tolerance to cold spells while sowing cover crops for the winter. Cold hardy plants withstand freezing temperatures, while plants sensitive to significant temperature drops die in the winter.
Summer Cover Crops
This kind blooms in the summertime between cycles of the major species, as the name would suggest. This technique controls erosion, outcompete weeds, and prepares the garden beds for the subsequent crop. Cover crops can be used as spring or summer food for livestock.
As opposed to bare soil that is exposed to the sun, they keep soil from drying out quickly with their thick roots. However, seeds may not sprout well during the summers due to droughts, and extreme heat may cause nitrogen deficiency, require additional residual treatment, or take longer than expected to decompose, delaying the sowing of fall primary species.
It would seem that choosing the right period and agricultural patterns are the keys to success because when things go wrong, benefits can quickly become drawbacks.
How to plant cover crop seeds?
Some planters choose to grow more than one cover crop to reap the benefits of all of its features in single sowing. So that you don't have to rely on speculation over how much of each variety to use, seed companies have created unique cover crop blends just for this purpose.
Buy locally or speak with a representative from your preferred mail-order seed supplier before placing an order to verify you're obtaining the best seeds for your region.
Cover crops differ in their capacity to adapt to soil conditions and climate. Thus, it is important to know when to plant cover crops before understanding the process of sowing seeds.
When to Plant Cover Crops?
As a basic guideline, the plant covers the crop seedlings one month before the anticipated first snowfall date in your location. On the other hand, certain cover crops require hotter temperatures than others to sprout, so review the seed label for precise advice.
Cereal rye, crimson clover, and hairy vetch are some of the most cold-tolerant cover crops, and because they germinate well in cool conditions, they can be sown up until the initial cold snap.
How to Sow Seeds
- Cover crops are never transferred from pots; they are always sown directly in the ground. 24 hours before planting, disinfect any seeds you plan on using.
- Clean any existing vegetation and break the soil using a spade or fork to a thickness of at least three to four inches.
- To create a level garden bed, smooth the topsoil with a thick metal blade.
- Scatter the seed at the rate indicated on the seed packet, either by hand or with a seed blower. Depending upon the variety, application values range from one to four ounces per 1,000 sq ft.
- To cover the seed, scrape the ground once more. Larger seedlings, like green beans, need to go deeper in the soil, so scour the soil more strongly for those. Small seeds, like rye, should stay near the top, so only give some of these a very gentle drag.
- Use a sprayer to keep the seeds damp until sprouting takes place. Another option is to wait for rain so that it will water your seedlings for you.
- If the weather is warm and dry, spraying may be essential to get the seedlings entrenched, but in most regions, rainfall keeps the soil sufficiently moist.
The cover crop will continue to develop until the temperature decreases persistently below freezing, at which point it will go quiescent for the winter. Early spring will see a resurgence in growth. Cut the cover crop down to the ground using a lawnmower a few weeks before you're ready to plant in the springtime. Allow it to decompose on the top for about a week, then plow it into the ground to make the nutrients available for the early spring harvests.
Benefits of Cover Cropping
The benefits of utilizing a cover cropping method outweigh the expense of cover crop seed by a wide margin.
1. Cover crops improve soil health and reduce erosion.
The loss of topsoil due to water, winds, or living creatures is identified as soil erosion. The impact of erosion on soil can be exceedingly destructive. The soil surface is shielded from dangerous abundant rainfall and severe storms by a thick coating of cover crops that serves as a protective shield.
With the help of cover crops, rainfall descends more gradually into the soil, resulting in more water infiltration and a higher proportion of groundwater recharge.
2. Leguminous cover crops enrich the soil with nitrogen.
Legumes have established a mutually beneficial relationship with microbes that dwell on their roots and have an almost miraculous ability to transform nitrogen from the air, where it is abundant but useless to plants, into a dissolved form that roots can soak up.
This process is called nitrogen-fixing. Despite insufficient availability in most soils, nitrogen is the ingredient that gives plants their lush, green growth. The nitrogen in the soil is restored by legume cover crops.
3. Cover crops enhance the soil's quality.
By creating a habitat for symbiotic spores and bacteria, growing cover crops can enhance the amount of organic matter in the soil. Improved soil structure, which allows for more aeration and moisture retention, results from a rise in soil organic matter.
4. Cover crops keep pests at bay.
The use of cover crops as "catch crops" can aid in minimizing the impact of insects on the crop. When dangerous pests find a trap crop to live in, they are largely removed from more desirable crops.
5. Cover crops prevent weed growth.
By limiting the amount of sunlight that weed seeds absorb, cover crops inhibit weed growth. The crop growth smothering effect prevents weed growth from developing even when they do manage to sprout.
This outcome occurs when the residue from the cover crop decomposes on the soil's surface, creating a significant layer of compost. The rapidly expanding weeds eventually use all of their effort trying to infiltrate this substantial blanket layer and perish before hitting the soil surface.
6. Cover crops enhance ecological health.
In addition to acting as a food supply and habitat for bees and other pollinating insects, blooming cover crops also give wildlife more fodder to consume during the brief winter season.
Best Plant Cover Crops for your Home Garden
As discussed earlier, cover crops while being used by both organic and conventional farmers, are just as useful and simple to utilize in a home garden.
They enhance the soil structure, avoid compaction, enhance its nutritional profile, disrupt pest life cycles, and suppress weeds in addition to preventing soil loss from erosion. However, choosing the ideal cover crop for your home garden can be difficult.
Some of the best cover crops to grow are:
- Clover, vetch, and peas are nitrogen- These are legumes that help fix nitrogen and convert atmospheric nitrogen in the soil.
- Nitrogen scavengers like radish, rye, sudangrass, and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids.
- Good cover crops for preventing erosion include clover, annual ryegrass, Austrian winter peas, crown vetch, mustards, and cowpeas.
- Crimson Clover supports pollinators by blooming.
- Large populations of helpful insects and pollinators are supported by buckwheat.
- Rye cereal decreases parasites that cause root knots and soil-borne infections. However, it is ineffective for crops affected by wireworms and grub worms.
There are several uses for cover crops in the fields. They increase the amount of organic matter present in the soil, improve its fertility, structure, composition, and erosion control, and attract pollinators.
This article has outlined the growing tips for cover crops in detail.
The key to successful cover cropping is planning and monitoring as you go. A cover crop's main purpose is to preserve the soil's surface, but it can also give your soil's ecosystem relaxation, nourishment, oxygenation, or any mix of those advantages.