Updated: March 17, 2020
Have you considered using cover crop in the vegetable garden? It may seem like overkill for the backyard grower. But it’s not.
Cover crop, a.k.a green manure, is one of the best values when it comes to soil improvement for home gardener. It’s a cost effective, easy way to help feed your plants.
Really smart backyard gardeners will take a page out of the professional farmers’ playbook and use cover crop to solve a number of soil problems. It can:
- Fix nitrogen in the soil
- Prevent soil erosion
- Reduce soil compaction
- Control weeds
- Suppress diseases
- Leach nutrients into the soil
Using cover crop in the vegetable garden is really easy. All you do is:
- Sow the seeds
- Water if necessary (often it’s not)
- Wait for it to grow
- Turn it into the soil
- Let it decompose before planting
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The two most popular types of cover crop are (1) legumes and (2) grasses:
Legumes for the backyard garden
Farmers frequently use legumes as cover crops because of their ability to take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil. In other words they provide “home grown nitrogen.”
Because of this, you can use legumes as green mulch around your vegetable plants. When you use legumes as green mulch, you provide nitrogen to your crops and suppress weeds at the same time. This is sometimes a good alternative when you don’t have mulch and there’s plenty of moisture for both the legume and your crops.
Common legume cover crops include:
I use white clover for cover crop in the vegetable garden. I like it because it stays viable for several years. I’ve been using the same seed package for the last three years. Plus, it’s a great way to add plant digestible nitrogen to your soil.
If you get three or four years of cover crop from one package, it’s a really cheap way to improve your soil.
Grasses as cover crops in the vegetable garden
An alternative to legumes are grasses. You should use grasses for increasing organic matter, recycling excess nutrients and reducing soil compaction.
Common cover crop grasses include:
I use winter rye cover crop in my raised beds because it’s very hearty and will grow in cold weather until it is covered with snow.
The cover crop buckwheat is neither a legume or a grass. It does an excellent job at recycling excess nutrients and attracting pollinators. You can use buckwheat to improve clay soil because it is very good at adding organic matter.
Keep in mind, you might have trouble finding cover crop seeds in areas where there isn’t a sizable farming community, but you can always get seeds online.
Strategies for cover crop in the vegetable garden
You can use cover crop any time your ground is bare. Many gardeners plant it in late summer and early fall after the vegetables are harvested. At that time of year, you may not need to water to grow it.
If you live in an area where the ground freezes in winter, frost will usually kill cover crop. A good time to turn it is early in the spring, when you can first work the soil. This provides enough time for the organic matter to decompose.
Depending on how dense the growth is, you may need to turn it twice to completely kill it off. When it’s really tall, you may need to mow first.
You will want to leave enough time for the organic matter to break down in the soil before planting your vegetables. This usually takes about a month.
Some cover crops will over winter and begin growing again in the spring. Winter rye is an example. You don’t want to let it get too dense because it will be difficult to turn under.
The best strategy
Keep in mind, however, it’s probably best not to turn cover crop. That’s because you don’t want to upset the natural soil structure when turning the crop under.
Plants do best when subsoil remains below, and topsoil is on top. If must turn it to plant, try not to dig down more than a few inches.
Most of the organic material should remain in the top layer of the soil if possible. Plants need you to keep soil structure in tact. At the same time, you need to bury cover crop deep enough to kill off any new growth.
It’s probably best to use a cover crop that dies off so you don’t have to turn the soil at all.
Cover crop in the hoop house
As you might expect, cover crop in the hoop house has all the same benefits as cover crop in the vegetable garden. But there are some special considerations.
First, Backyard hoop houses are sometimes rather small. You certainly can’t bring a rototiller or tractor into a small hoop house.
My hoop house is only 8 feet long. Very few backyards can support a hoop house that is as big as 20 feet long. So if you need to turn your cover crop, make sure it’s not too difficult to turn in a small space.
I’ve seen some very fibrous winter rye. Sometimes it’s pretty difficult to turn. You wouldn’t want to put a hole in your hoop house plastic because your cover crop required some heavy duty shoveling.
Second, cover crop used as green mulch works pretty well in the hoop house. A lot of hoop house gardeners can’t put regular mulch products in their hoop house because mice and voles are attract to the easy digging that regular mulch makes possible.
Mice and voles love hoop houses.
Green mulch, on the other hand, is not very attractive to these critters. I’ve used green mulch very successfully for my hoop house tomatoes.
Do you use cover crop to improve your soil? Let us know what kind you use and when you plant it by commenting below.
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