Jordan Freytag + photo

Jordan Freytag

Aug 8
6 min read
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We've Got You Covered: A Guide to Cover Crops

Cover crops offer a wide range of benefits to your garden or farm including preventing winter erosion when under-planting for weed control amid growing crops and revitalizing your soil with leftover biomass, also referred to as “green manure” which contain copious amounts of nutrients, said to increase yield of future crops. The best way to determine which cover crop might be best for you is to understand what each cover crop seed requires in terms of maintenance and what it offers the mini ecosystem of your grow area. Also, do a soil test and grow a small patch to see how the seed fairs. Most cover crops offer biomass and erosion-preventative properties whether legumes, broadleaf, and/or grass but understanding the differences between these types of cover crops allows insight into how it is benefiting your soil for it’s future crop.

Also, it is good to be familiar with the term "inoculation", a process by which seeds are treated to promote a culture of beneficial bacterium that works in conjunction with the cover crop to convert atmospheric nitrogen into soil nitrogen that plants can use when cover crops are turned under. Read more about inoculation here. Some of our seeds come pre-inoculated but not all as is stated on the cover crop seed product page.

Legumes

Nitrogen fixers–adding 50 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Used to fix soils after cash crop production. These plants generally attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. Inoculation of seeds required before planting, although most come pre-inoculated. Legumes include Field Peas, Hairy Vetch, Crimson and White Dutch Clover, and Alfalfa.

Cereals, Grasses, & Broadleaf Species

Nutrient scavengers–although it is rare, if you find yourself with too much nitrogen in your soil plant any number of non-legume cover crops which continue to add biomass to your soil but draw 30 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre. These include Wheats, Rye, Barley, and Triticale.

Brassicas: Radish & Mustard

Pest managers–Spring/summer cover crops that help significantly control pests because they contain a higher amount glucosinolate than other brassicas, and this chemical compound wards-off harmful insects, especially when the plant cells are ruptured when the plants are mowed down. If allowed to go to seed, you may have a hard time getting rid of Mustard plants. Mustard and Radish are known for their rapid fall growth, which makes them a great weed suppressor. Try Daikon Radish and these Mustards: Pacific Gold, White Gold, Kodiak, Trifecta.

Cover Crop Mixes

Best of all worlds–although planting and maintaining cover crop mixes can require more attention and work, it can pay off, allowing you to accomplish multiple goals with your soil at once! Try these mix: Garden Cover Crop Mix. Looking for grazing cover crop? Try Dryland Pasture Mix and Irrigated Pasture Grass Mix!

Cover Crop Seeds:


Warm Season:

We consider warm season cover crops to be those seed varieties that will germinate and grow to maturity in warmer temperatures. A warm-season crop can also be winter hardy, but it is rare.

  • Buckwheat A great summer cover crop that will spring-up and mature so quickly, you’ll be shocked. Very susceptible to frost. Grows and matures within six weeks, making it a great weed suppressor like mustard and radish. It is even possible to do more than one buckwheat crop per year if need be. Sow as early as May and harvest as late as September.
  • Mustards As mentioned before mustards help control pests as well as weeds. Due to its rapid growth in the fall, weeds don’t have a chance to take of the soil and grow. Mustard’s roots burrow deeper than other scavengers for nutrients, which also help ward-off soilborne pathogens. Expect about eighty percent soil coverage.
  • Winter Rye Germinates extremely well in warm temperatures and once established it can withstand temperatures as low as 33°F. Rye also leaves behind a residue that makes it difficult for weeds to grow. High water usage.

Cool Season:

Cool season cover crops usually refer to the seed varieties' ability to germinate and withstand the winter months, or even grow amid colder temperatures.
  • Alfalfa This upright variety is a cool season cover crop, ideal for spring and late-summer sowing, requires a lot of water and attract pollinators. Often inter-seeded with small grains and grows after grain is harvested. Seed in the spring for summer growth and late summer mowing.
  • Austrian Field Pea A cool season nitrogen fixer with low water maintenance. If grown to flowering stage, flowers attract pollinators. Used as a winter cover crop in the south where winter temperatures do not drop below freezing. Grow as a spring to summer cover crop in places of harsh winters. Try Dundale Pea also.
  • Crimson Clover Considered one of the best cover crops for the southeastern united states. Ideal fall and winter growth for this area of the united states. Not suitable for areas where a significant frost occurs. Medium to high water usage.
  • White Dutch Clover Tolerates shaded areas better than other cover crops. A perennial great for pasture and orchard growth, bringing beneficial pollinators.
  • Fava Beans - Sow in early spring; compared to field peas, Fava Beans need to be planted earlier because it can germinate in cooler temperatures.
  • Hairy Vetch A cool season cover crop that can withstand frost! An ideal cover crop for more temperate climates. Releases nitrogen quicker because of its rapid decomposition habit. Beneficial to soils during or after growing a high-nitrogen-demanding crop.
  • Winter Rye Germinates extremely well in warm temperatures and once established it can withstand temperatures as low as 33°F. Rye also leaves behind a residue that makes it difficult for weeds to grow. High water usage.
  • Triticale Another grain with a great biomass production, but not as hard to control as Rye. Very Winter Hardy.
  • Hard Red Spring Wheat - Planted in early spring, this crop isgreat at weed suppression and added biomass. Make sure to turn under one month before planting summer crops.
  • Hard Red Winter Wheat - When seeded in early fall, Winter Wheat goes dormant in the winter holding soil in place. It ensures growth as early spring weather warms. Plant in fall for full cover crop growth or plant in spring for half -growth for biomass.
  • Yellow Pea - Plant in early fall or spring, this cool-season cover crop suited for more temperate climates, making it ideal for the northern United States. Similarly, it is suitable for winter growth in the southern United States. Sometimes grown on to maturity and harvested as a dry pea for split pea soup.

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9 comments

John

So you grow your cover crop, do you just turn it over into the soil and mix it up. I am a backyard farmer using my yard to grow our veggies Thanks John


Helen Lyons

This is by far the best article I have seen written on this subject. Where can I find a printed copy?


Louise Bailey

I just took a course on cover crops and it’s amazing how beneficial this is. The course was also on ‘No Till’, so for anyone interested, in spring (April/May) you basically just push your cover crop over. Don’t mow it, don’t chop it down, just push it all over to flatten it out. Then you just poke holes directly through it plant your seeds, or you can pull parts of it away to expose the soil to plant if needed. By gardening this way you are ensuring rich nutrient soil. It may take a few years, but eventually you’ll have nice soft fluffy soil. (tilling to fluff the soil does not ensure better water drainage as folks think, but no-till method does). The state we live in is promoting no-till through education in hopes more backyard gardeners will do Cover Crops/No Till to improve soil integrity.


Brahm BEDELL

Louise Bailey: Thank you for the additional insight! People need to understand the necessity of soil maintainance, especially when our water is becoming more and more precious. Cheers to No Till & Cover Crops!


Dorene Miller

Is there an answer to John’s question of 8/15/18? I have cool season Garden Cover Crop Mix. Do i turn it over or let it grow?


Chris Knudsen Miner

Having trouble with cilantro and parsley micro green. Soaked overnight and tried growing in both soil and the growing mat. No or little growth. Any recommendations


Betty

Remove me from mail list!!


ALIDA

we have a small garden in southern California, our soil is dry clay and very hard. We get the rain once or twice a year, usually February or March sometimes in November. we would like to improve our soil with cover crops. can you please recommend what seeds we need to plant thanks Alida


Lowell Green

I would like to know if cover crops are beneficial to growing a healthy lawn. I laid down some grass sod about 2 years ago and now the soil seems to be drying out, the grass is dying. When I first put it down a lot of weeds began sprouting up. I pulled them all up. I was told that the growers use those what I was calling weeds to help bring up the grass. This almost sound like they were being used as a cover crop. I hope my question is not confusing. I hope that someone can help me out. Thank You Lowell Green


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