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Protect Your Home Garden with Cover Crops

Protect Your Home Garden with Cover Crops

By Ashleigh Smith, True Leaf Market
Photographs courtesy of True Leaf Market

Did you know cover crops aren’t just for professional growers? They are vital to a nutrient-rich home garden. Year after year, vegetables pull vital nutrients from the soil without putting anything back. Cover crops are meant to solve this problem. Because they act as a living mulch, you will not lose your soil to erosion, splashing, and winds associated with a bare winter garden.

Adding extra soil, fertilizer, compost, or mulch every few years can add up quickly, not to mention the labor involved. There is a solution for this.

By using a cover crop mix you can enjoy the natural benefits of organic amendments while saving a few bucks, and the back-breaking work to transport it. Additionally, cover crop root systems help stabilize soil in your raised beds, plots, and open gardens all year, preventing erosion during the winter and spring runoff seasons.

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The first step is finding the right cover crop seeds for your needs. Feel your soil. Is it hard with clay? Or have your plants been yellow, weak or overtaken by weeds? Use the tried-and-true method of growing cover crops to restore and revitalize spent garden soil.

For nutrient needs, try planting a legume such as peas or clover to add nitrogen into the soil. Remember to use a legume inoculant when planting. For hard soils, add winter rye to help break up compact clay loams. We like to recommend using grains or grasses like rye, barley, wheat, or triticale to increase the rich, dark organic matter in dry and poor soil.

For the best pest control benefits cover crops have to offer, plant brassicas such as mustard and radishes. Cover crops have so many great benefits, but my favorite is weed suppression. Simply having something over your soil during the off-season can prevent pesky and aggressive weeds from taking over your home garden. 

After identifying what your soil needs and selecting the seed that will help improve it, find out when your first and last frost dates are expected. When planting a fall cover crop, broadcast your seeds when temperatures start decreasing from the heat of the summer. Then, lightly rake in your seeds. Allow enough time based on the life cycle of your chosen seed to germinate and grow several inches.

Cut, mow, or till your cover crop around the time of your first fall frost. In the spring, wait to plant until just after your last spring frost. Like a fall cover crop, you should allow several weeks to develop healthy growth. Again, cut, mow or till at least two to three weeks before you start your garden for the season. It takes at least this much time for your plant material to start decomposing, making nutrients available throughout your growing season. 

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Personally, I like to use a mix of various seeds to enjoy all the benefits cover crops can offer. Here at True Leaf Market we offer a garden mix that includes four legumes to increase nutrients, three hardy grains for biomass and erosion prevention, radish to break up hard soils, collard for organic matter, and yellow mustard for pest management. This mix can be used as either a spring or fall cover crop. Be sure to cut your cover crop before it goes to seed. Not doing so will result in volunteers during the main growing season. If you aren’t sure where to start when it comes to cover crops, try a mix like this one. Then, learn more about these plants and how you can take charge of your garden and soil for years to come.

To help you get better acquainted with the many options available as cover crops, we have created a free cover crop guide in which you can learn what plants can be used, when to plant them and how they are used in the garden.

If this has been your first time learning about cover crops, you may feel a little overwhelmed. I get it, believe me. The more I dive into the world of gardening, the more I find there is to learn. Gardening is supposed to be an extremely simple process; cover crops should not complicate it.

The takeaway here is that your soil is the ultimate source of a wonderful and productive garden. To protect it during the off-season and prepare for the growing season, use a cover crop to reduce soil erosion, increase nutrients for the coming seasons and improve soil quality.

Remember, the process starts by identifying how your soil can improve, broadcasting your chosen seed, lightly raking the seed into the soil, and watering. Cut or mow the crop when you are ready to turn it in; then, allow your garden to rest two to three weeks before planting in the spring. Follow these simple steps to guarantee a successful garden you can enjoy all year. Simply put, garden the natural way with cover crops.

Ashleigh Smith is the managing editor at True Leaf Market, with a bachelor's degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University - Idaho. True Leaf Market is a national certified organic, non-GMO seed and horticultural company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The True Leaf Market staff specializes in supplying a large selection of conventional, heirloom, and organic seeds to home gardeners everywhere. Learn more about cover crop seeds and other seed-growing ideas:

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