Ah, the uncelebrated cover crop. Saviour of many, yet thanked by few.
They are not as sexy as the voluptuous tomato nor do they possess the rainbow gathering of certain chards. Cover crops remain unsung heroes because most of their goodwill happens under the soil (although one would certainly be devoid of heart if they didn’t find a field of crimson clover breathtaking).
Cover crops create a soil microclimate, which are rich in nutrients. Basically, a grower can scatter cover crop seed in a clean garden bed, creating a home for the next season or two for the burgeoning plants. They are then tilled in before the next growing season, leaving behind a rich soil for the new plants (vegetables, flowers, etc.) to delve into.
While all gardeners dream of yards bustling with veggies, few consider creating a living foundation to make that vision concrete. The benefits are immense. Here are some highlights:
- Microbe mess halls. Cover crops add tons of organic matter to the soil which feeds microbes that can combat numerous diseases that enters the soil.
- Benefactor of the beneficials. Various cover crops’ flowers yield nectar for beneficial insects as well as providing them with cover and dwelling.
- Nitrogen Nets. Cover crops love to hoard nitrogen. Once these plants cover an area, excess nitrogen cannot leach away. Gluttony stays in check because all surplus nitrogen is taken up by the plants and then returned to the soil once the plants are tilled in. This nitrogen will be passed on to the next crop that grows in its place.
- A lovely prison for potential runaway soil. The roots of the cover crops buttress the soil, preventing erosion.
- Bane of Weeds: Some crops like winter rye and vetch will smother other weeds competing for space. Greedy grass like rye and oats are allelopathic, which means they release chemicals into the soil which can eradicate the germination and growth of competing seedling species. Take heed when using allelopathic cover crops by waiting three weeks after tilling them in to prevent any chemical residue affecting your prized seedlings.
- Nutrient Bank. Once the implementation of cover crops becomes a yearly routine, gardeners will own a rich nutrient investment in the soil.
Fall is on the horizon, and it’s best to begin considering some autumn ready cover crops for overwintering. Fall cover crops should be planted 40 days before the first killing frost.
For a fall cover crop schedule and plant specific information, see the next post.