This post was most recently updated on January 26th, 2021
Everybody loves a clean, weed free garden, full of beautiful neat rows of vegetables, right? Me too. But cover crops are none of those things! Nature hates bare dirt and will do all it can to cover it – be it grow weeds or mulch it with the tree’s own leaves.
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Bare dirt dries out, it leeches nutrients and loses topsoil to erosion. Mulching your soil is a great start – I like to use woodchips or straw. But sometimes I like to use cover crops. Here’s why…
What are cover crops?
Cover crops are known as many things – green manure, winter cover, garden grass cover and of course, cover crops. What it is is simply sheet sowing seeds of specific plants over your whole garden (or specific garden beds).
Once the cover crops have grown you either chop-n-drop the plants or dig them in. As we are following a no-dig regime in the garden, I use the chop-n-drop method.
You just make sure you do this BEFORE the plant sets seeds or you will be competing with tiny plants for the whole next season. ALLLLLL over your garden.
What are the benefits to cover crops?
They aren’t called green manure for no reason! Cover crops add bulk and organic material to the soil. The bring up nutrients from down deep in the soil, add the sun’s energy and a whole lot of carbon to the soil.
When they are left on the top of the soil to naturally break down cover crops will:
1). Give somewhere for beneficial insects to live.
2). Stop weeds from growing by blocking the light.
3). Keep moisture in the soil, so stops it drying out so quickly.
4). Protect the soil from heavy rain/hail/snow preventing erosion and compaction of the soil.
5). They are so much fun to let the kids sow, they can throw those suckers wherever they jolly well please and mum doesn’t complain.
When do you plant cover crops?
Well, traditionally you plant a cover crop in autumn/fall, this gives it just enough time to get established and grow a good amount of greenery before the frost (or the gardener) knocks it back.
Autumn/fall usually also has ample rain/moisture about to give the seeds a good start, while still having long enough sunlight to allow them to get good growth in.
This year however, my soil is so sadly lacking in moisture-holding organic matter, that although the wood chip mulch is helping, it is not enough. So instead of spending a further $300 on wood chips to add thicker mulch, instead I spent $30 on seeds.
We have sprinkled these all over the garden wherever anything is not currently growing. It is currently mid summer here, but we are having week after week of rubbish weather, so I am hoping we will get enough rain in the next week to get these sprouted without having to resort to using our precious water-tank water.
What plants make good cover crops?
This season I have planted a mixture of peas, broad beans (fava), and buckwheat (which I have never grown before!). I chose these partly because they were some I could buy through Kings seeds in bulk bags and partly because the legumes (peas and beans) will add nitrogen as well as bulk to the soil and the buckwheat should add plenty of carbon.
Broad Beans/Fava Beans*
Wheat (Includes Spelt, Triticale)
*Legumes. They add nitrogen to the soil as well as carbon mass by the way of leaves. Common combinations include Rye and Clover, Vetch and Oats and Peas and barley. For more nitrogen fixing plant read here.
Check out our post on succession gardening
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Have you tried cover crops? What has been your experience? Let me know in the comments below!
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