If you’ve heard of cover crops, you probably think about things that farmers with numerous acres plant to protect and improve their soil… but did know you know that cover crops can be a great method for small gardeners (even urban gardeners!) to improve soil fertility?!
On this page, we hope to share what cover crops are, how they benefit the soil, how we’re using them to tackle some gardening / land maintenance challenges, what types of cover crops exist out there and and how you might get started planting your own cover crop!
Here’s a quick video on our cover crop planting experience. Give it a watch, but more more thorough information, keep on reading!
What is a Cover Crop?
Put simply, cover crops are plants grown primarily for their benefits for the land and soil, not because they are edible.
Farmers often plant cover crops to keep their soil safe from erosion, to build up nitrogen levels, help with water retention, to loosen soil, add good stuff back to the soil and more.
Typically, cover crops are grown during the off season when fields or gardens are resting. This can be in fall or spring, but not usually during the main growing season.
Also, some people choose to give their fields or garden beds a resting year where they only grow cover crops to recover the soil. While enhancing the soil, the cover crops can also be cut down multiple times and used as mulch on other beds – pretty neat, huh?
Basically, if you have soil siting unused, it should be growing a cover crop. And you should really think about finding ways to add cover crops into your garden rotation – even if you only have one small bed!
What are the main reasons we personally are using cover crops?
We have A LOT of weeds on our property and the biggest culprit is spotted knapweed, a prickly, purple thistle plant that thrives in heat, drought conditions, and anywhere the soil has been disturbed- so essentially our entire property!
Last year we put up a valiant battle against the weed with a chemical arsenal of Milestone herbicide, but I didn’t like the thought of all those poisons making it into our soil. So, when I heard a story from a friend about successfully eradicating knapweed by planting a cover crop that could out-compete it, we decided to give it a try.
For our purposes, we wanted to plant a hardy perennial that would establish itself fast and out-compete our pesky knapweed before it could establish itself again.
Which cover crop to get for your farm or garden?
There are dozens of cover crops on the market today, and they all have slightly different benefits for the soil. Frankly, it’s all very confusing and far from obvious which ones are best, especially if you’re a beginning gardener like me.
A great book for the backyard gardener is The Suburban Micro-Farm. I read through the portion on cover crops the other day and it had a lot of quality but easy-to-understand information.
I’d been researching cover crops for three weeks before deciding what kind to plant, and I relied both on the advice of knowledgeable local farmers and handy online charts such as the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory’s Cover Crop Chart.
Lots of conditions can affect the kind of cover crop you choose to plant, so it’s important to be really clear about what your goals are for your soil. Will the plants get lots of sun? Does the crop need to be tolerant to drought? How tall do you want it to get? Does the amount of green manure you get matter to you? Answering these questions will guide your search for the right cover crop for you.
If you want more in-depth knowledge of cover crops, check out the cover crop bible… I have yet to read this one but many speakers in my master gardeners class referred to it as a great resource!
What type of cover crop did we get to combat our weed problem?
For us, we didn’t want anything that would grow too tall and our limited water supply meant we didn’t want to rely on any irrigation beyond rain. And, as we already used a broadleaf herbicide, anything in the broadleaf category was ruled out, so we were left more or less with a bunch of grassy options!
For our weedy field, we decided on a base of perennial ryegrass because it seemed to fit our needs well based on various cover crop charts. We supplemented it with annual ryegrass.
The idea is that the annual seeds will grow fast this year and beat out the knapweed so that the perennial seeds have time to take root and come back year after year. The annual seeds won’t come back next year, but hopefully the perennial will fill in the gaps.
Also in our seed mix are three kinds of fescue: hard, sheep, and creeping red. Total disclosure, I don’t really know much about fescue, but I heard it’s drought tolerant and has a natural toxicity to knapweed, so that was good enough for me!
Altogether, we bought enough grass seed for half an acre, with the intention of seeding a quarter acre and having some available for extra places.
Oh… we also bought some red clover for our raised beds since that area is completely free from herbicide – on purpose!
Preparing The Soil for A Cover Crop
Seeds don’t germinate well if they don’t make contact with the ground, so before planting a cover crop, it can be ideal to somewhat till the soil.
However, we don’t exactly have farm equipment OR soil that can be easily tilled (It’s full of rock) but that didn’t stop us from comping up with a creative solution to get the job done! We roughed up our soil the redneck way.
All I did was take a few of the literally thousands of heavy rocks from our property and put them on a pallet, which I then dragged around our yard behind a four-wheeler.
Next time a ratchet strap keeping the rocks in place would be a good idea, but this technique left our soil scraped and roughened enough for seeds to go down. (I used a landscape rake to get the places where the four-wheeler couldn’t reach, but it wasn’t as effective).
After pulling off the last of the extra knapweed from our land, I was ready to get to planting.
Planting the Cover Crop by Spreading Seeds
According to Jesse, we have a hand spreader somewhere on our property. That statement has yet to be proven true, so I relied on a handheld spreader that I borrowed from a neighbor instead.
It was a little small and definitely not ergonomic for my cramping wrist, but it worked for our purposes. For anything bigger than a quarter acre, I’d recommend a portable spreader instead.
And now that our seed is spread, there’s nothing to do but wait and see if any green comes up!
We Hope Our Cover Crop Grows & We’re Not Afraid to Learn From Our Mistakes
We’ll never pretend that we are experts at any of the activities we try on our property.
Keep in mind that we are starting this homestead from scratch with very little prior experience, which means we are learning as we go. Every technique we try is a new adventure, and we usually have no idea how it will work out in the long run. And that’s okay.
In our mind, the key to building a homestead from scratch is a willingness to try. Avoid analysis paralysis and don’t be afraid to dive into something that might not work.
Also, be sure to enjoy the little victories along the way- otherwise it’s too easy to focus on the failures.
Will our cover crop out-compete that nasty knapweed? Who can say.
For all we know, disturbing our soil just made our property an even more perfect habitat for it. We’ll find out in the next few months, but if any green stuff starts to sprout, that will be a victory to celebrate.
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