About Cover Crops
Cover crops, also known as green manure, are plants that are grown for the primary purpose of providing soil protection and fertility. They are important in agriculture because they help to keep the soil healthy and productive. Cover crops are usually planted during the fallow period. In other words, the farmer will plant them between harvests.
Cover crops have many uses on farms and homesteads:
- Prevents Soil Erosion: Cover crops help prevent erosion by holding and increasing soil organic matter, which helps bind soil particles together and increase water infiltration. Erosion also exposes soil to the sun and air, allowing it to dry out. The plants in a cover crop system provide structure to reduce rain impact and hold soil in place. For example, rye cover has been shown to reduce water runoff up to 30% more than bare fallow.
- Suppressing Weeds: Cover crops prevent light from reaching the soil surface, which inhibits weed seed germination. This is especially important during tillage operations because tillage can cause dormant weed seeds to germinate.
There are still many benefits of Crop Plants such as:
- They provide nourishment to the soil
- They prevent nutrient loss
- They improve your garden’s resilience against stress factors such as drought
- They improve soil structure by adding organic matter and breaking up compaction
Most Common Types of Cover Crop Plants
Legumes – Legumes include beans, peas, clover, and vetch. These plants are known for their ability to fix nitrogen from the air into the soil through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria called rhizobia. This symbiosis benefits both the plant and the soil by providing nutrients to the plant while replenishing the soil with nitrogen.
Grasses – Grasses grow quickly and have extensive root systems that help them absorb nutrients from deep within the soil. They also provide good ground cover that helps prevent erosion by protecting the soil from wind and rain. Grasses can be used as cover crops or as a source of biomass for biofuel production.
Cereal rye – A hearty winter crop that is used to suppress weeds and control erosion. It can be planted as late as November or December in the northern hemisphere and as late as August or September in the southern hemisphere.
Grains – Provide carbon and cellulose to the soil, which helps improve its structure and make it easier for plant roots to grow in it.
Growing Cover Crops
The best time to sow cover crops is in the late summer or early fall. This gives the plants a chance to grow through the winter while they protect your soil and improve its structure. In the spring, you can turn them under before planting your garden crops or even plant right through them (if you choose an edible cover crop like clover).
Keep in mind that some cover crops, particularly hairy vetch and rye, can be difficult to kill in the spring, so make sure that you mow them down several weeks before planting your garden. Then turn them under at least a week in advance of planting your garden, so they have time to decompose.
If you want to try things out without committing too much effort, consider using inexpensive annual ryegrass for a single growing season. It’s easy to sow in late summer and will grow quickly enough to suppress weeds.
If you’re ready for something more serious, try crimson clover as a nitrogen-fixing green manure crop and hairy vetch as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop that will also smother weeds.
Caring Cover Crops
Cover crops are an important tool in any organic farmer’s toolbox, but they require more than a little care to keep them healthy and ready to work.
Many people struggle with how to care for cover crops. The task can seem daunting at first, but it is important to remember that cover crops are not difficult to take care of, especially once you get the hang of it.
Here are some tips for caring for cover crops:
1. Choose a cover crop that works well in your climate zone
2. Plant them in the fall or winter while the ground is still warm enough to support growth
3. Keep an eye on them during winter so they don’t get too dry or get overgrown by weeds
4. In springtime, cut back the cover crop so there is only one inch of green left (if you let it grow taller than that then it may shade out new seedlings as they come up)
Watering Cover Crops:
Once you’ve planted your cover crops, it’s important that you water them regularly. You’ll want to do this with a watering can or another method (such as drip irrigation), so that you can ensure that all of the plants get enough moisture without getting too much at once (which could drown them). The plants should be watered about every two weeks during their active growth stage and once per month during dormancy (when they’ll need less water).
Propagating Cover Crops
To propagate leguminous cover crops, you’ll need a seed drill, some soil, and some seeds. Once you have all these materials gathered, you can begin planting your leguminous cover crops.
First, prepare the soil by tilling it with a rototiller and then smoothing it out with a rake. Make sure there are no weeds or debris in the area where you will be planting your seeds. Then, plant them using your seed drill. The depth of each row should be at least one inch deep.
After planting your seeds, water them well so they will grow quickly and vigorously. This helps ensure that they will not fall victim to pests or diseases before becoming established in their new environment.
Once the seedlings reach maturity, they can be transplanted into larger containers for further growth or even into a field where they can continue providing benefits to local ecosystems as well as humans!
Pest and Disease Control
Pests and diseases can be a huge problem for cover crop plants of all kinds. Luckily, there are some ways to minimize the impact of pests and disease so you can get the most out of your cover crop plants.
Something to keep in mind is that cover crop plants don’t tend to be susceptible to the same pests and diseases that occur in row crops, so pest management is generally easier for cover crops.
Weed control is one of the most important parts of pest management for cover crops: weeding can prevent pests from getting a foothold.
This goes double for weeds that support insect pests, like cocklebur and pokeweed. These weeds can be controlled through chemical means or by tilling them under if they’re present before planting your crop.
Another way you can prevent pests is by rotating your crops. Rotating your crops helps prevent the buildup of pathogens and prevents insect populations from becoming too large.