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Fall and Winter Cover Crops for the Home Garden

  In the fall, after the harvest is gathered and the farm field is plowed, the soil is susceptible to erosion. Continual, yearly farming of the field, takes nutrients from the soil. Rainfall further leaches nutrients out of the soil. Wind and runoff from heavy rains and snow melt, often result in soil erosion. Planting a cover crop is a farming technique, to reduce, offset, and eliminate these threats to the farm field. As a home gardener, you can use cover crops to benefit your home garden. 

Cover crops are planted in the fall, to reduce or minimize soil erosion and/or improve the soil. Cover crops can benefit the home garden. in the same ways that it does on the farm. Early in the spring, till or turn over the garden. Once it is turned into the soil, the cover crop will die and decompose releasing into the soil, it's valuable stash of nutrients in time to feed your new garden crop.


Benefits of Crop Rotation

Minimizes or eliminates soil erosion. The root system of cover crops holds the soil in place. Wind can not pick up soil and blow it away. Runoff from heavy spring rain and snow melt, has a harder time eroding the soil.

Cover crops replenish soil nutrients. Plants used as cover crops are usually high in nitrogen and other needed soil nutrients and micro-nutrients. These plants offer an organic way to replenish and enrich you garden soil. You'll need less chemical fertilizers, and save money, too!

They improve garden tilth, the physical condition of the soil. For sandy soils, the cover crop provides organic material, improving soil texture and improved water retention. When working into heavy clay soils, the organic content of cover crops help to loosen up the soil, making it easier for roots to penetrate.

New crops can follow the "root map". The root system of the cover crop, can provide channels for new crops to send roots deeply into heavy soils. Of course, this benefit is negated if you till the soil, prior to planting crops.

In warmer regions, some cover corps can also produce vegetables. For example, beans grown as a cover crop can be harvested for consumption.

The growth of pesky weeds is minimized. A cover crop allows fewer places for aggressive weeds to take hold.


Plants Grown as Cover Crops

By definition, cover crops are any plants grown to help improve or retain the soil. Technically, this means you can use any plant. However, some plants are better cover crops than others. Of important note, plants used as cover crops should be annuals. When they are tilled into your garden soil, they won't grow back to choke out your garden plants. Some plants used as cover crops return a higher amount of nutrients, especially nitrogen to the soil.

Cold weather plants are also preferred, as they will grow the best in fall and winter (depending upon your region) weather.

The best cover crops are:

  • Clover - Crimson clover is one of the best cover crops.
  • Hairy Vetch, an excellent choice.
  • Cereal grains
  • Annual Ryegrass -  grows well in cool weather
  •  Legumes work well to "fix" nitrogen in the soil. They include: beans, peas, and soybeans.


Did You Know? Mulch can also be used in the home garden , to provide many of the same benefits as a cover crop. More on Garden Mulch.

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