There are many great benefits to planting a cover crop. Commercial market gardens and farmers have been cover cropping their gardens and fields for hundreds of years. The reasons aren’t even that obscure— most can be observed in the fall, winter and spring.
By observing these benefits ourselves, we can truly find value in the time, space and energy it takes to cover crop our gardens.
Cover cropping is not that laborious or expensive for the home grower. Also, using some of the techniques we share here (I also offer courses on my educational platform, EcosystemU.com), home growers can cover crop affordably and effectively.
Most gardens can be cover cropped completely for between $10 to $60!
There are tons of benefits to cover cropping, and we could fill a book exploring them all. But here are a few that are plainly obvious to the naked eye.
The soil is full of organisms, full of soil life. It’s an entire ecosystem of microbiology at your feet.
If you lift a handful of soil, you will see some creepy crawly organisms like earthworms. But there are oh so many others that you don’t see!
I have done data collection to show the observable difference in soil organism habitat to the naked eye. It was a very simple process (which are ones I like best, because they are so practical and transferable to anyone anywhere). I walked my fields and adjacent farm fields, and people’s gardens in early spring after the long cold northeastern winter.
Most fields are bare soil through winter and spring. However, there is always straggling weeds or debris.
I would dig up 10 shovelfuls of random soil in these gardens and/or fields and look for observable soil organisms. I would also dig up 10 shovelfuls of soil from just immediately beside the random dandelion or other weed that was left and missed in plowing or in garden clean-up.
Without fail, there were earthworks and other soil organisms living amidst that habitat of the vegetation.
Why Is This?
This is because vegetation provides shelter from the cold and other environmental extremes and provides food for these organisms. This doesn’t mean you need to leave weeds in your gardens. And it certainly doesn’t mean to be careless in your garden process in preparation for winter.
Rather, it means cover cropping can provide that habitat for soil life in an organized way. It is easy to cover crop the garden, then remove the cover in spring for planting. Or you can leave the green matter to let the field regenerate through early summer and plant late summer/fall crops!
Winter rye can be established very late in growing season, even putting on new growth in temperatures around 37 to 50 degrees F. It can establish a protective cover over the soil so the soil life is safe in the cold winter extremes and provide them with habitat through til spring, when the land can be re-prepared.
Read more: You can use worm counts to asses your soil’s health and improvement.
The soil is vulnerable to erosion, and during the spring, when the snow melts and the rain falls, we risk losing valuable nutrients and soil organic matter. But the roots of cover crops will hold this soil in place and keep these nutrients in your gardens.
This is also easily observable. Go out in the late winter when the snow is just starting to melt on your land. Look at the area where it melts first and the way it forms melt pools and little melt rivulets on the surface of the snow pack, resulting in soil erosion.
Why is this?
These areas are going to have high amounts of water flow for a short period of time. This means the ability of the soil structure in your yard or field to hold on to particles of silt, sand and clay will be overcome.
The melt water in the spring has a higher volume and also a higher carry capacity to move particles of earth. Cover crops hold soil aggregates, and their leaves buffer and slow rain in spring. This can impact the ground, causing bursts and little blow outs in the soil surface that can then be eroded!
A cover crop of peas and oats can be seeded in late summer to establish a strong mat of dense vegetation before the first frost. The frost will kill the cover crop but leave a protective cover to reduce erosion in the spring. You’ll then be able to turn the garden into new beds for spring plantings.
Read more: The first step of garden soil fertility improvement? Getting the garden in shape.
Cover Crops Boost Fertility
The fertilizers and other nutrients in your soil are lost easily. When we apply fertility into bare soil it can easily be eroded, leached into the subsoil or lost into the atmosphere. Crops helps to capture nutrients by using them.
Why is this?
At times of the year when there are no crops on the bed tops or fields, nutrients are readily lost. The soil is an engine and always functions, but we cannot control when nutrients are released from their bonds on soil particles.
Yet, if we have cover crops established in our gardens at times of the year when the garden isn’t growing crops, then these cover crops can act as nutrient sponges, taking up the soluble nutrients and converting them to organic matter. This fixes these nutrients, storing them safely for future use as the cover crops decompose.
Clover will fix lots of nitrogen. If you fry it back with a black tarp prior to planting, it will release this nitrogen and other nutrients quickly back into the soil for your plants to use.
Cover crops can be quite helpful for you and your soil allies!