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Springing into Action - A Guide to Planning Your Cover Crops

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

Spring is the true start to the new year. As perennials begin to break dormancy, the thought of filling your gardens with beautiful plants is irresistible. As your seedlings are growing indoors, don’t forget to prepare your planting beds. Cover crops are the perfect way to improve soil quality before transplanting warm-season crops and in preparation for approaching the winter season. These crops include a variety of plants known to provide lasting benefits to the soil over time.

Some of the most common soil benefits of growing cover crops include weed suppression, nutrient replenishment and erosion control. During the early spring months, the soil is especially susceptible to erosion due to spring runoff and wind. Keep your soil where it belongs by growing a spring cover crop before planting warm-season vegetables. This strategy enhances soil quality, leading to better yields and healthier crops.

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While there are many plants that can be grown as cover crops, the main categories include legumes, brassicas, grains, and some grasses. Legumes are nitrogen-fixing plants that can transfer nitrogen found in the air into a form usable by plants in the soil. Common legume cover crops include clover, field peas, beans, and hairy vetch. Brassicas include plants like mustard, canola, radish, and turnips. These plants are most beneficial for their ability to reduce soil compaction and suppress weeds. If you struggle with compact clay soils, be sure to include some brassicas in your next cover crop.

Popular cover crop grains and grasses include alfalfa, wheat, triticale, and buckwheat. If planting a cover crop for the summer or fall seasons, consider fast-growing buckwheat, mustard, and winter rye. For growth to occur during the cool weather seasons, try peas, clover, spring wheat, and alfalfa. If creating your own mix feels overwhelming, try an all-purpose garden cover crop mix that can be planted throughout the year.

Before sowing your cover crop seeds, clear the area. Generally, seedlings become best established in an environment free of competition with mature plants. If using no-till methods, make sure your previous crop has had at least three weeks to rest since being cut down or removed. Then broadcast the cover crop seeds according to the recommended planting rate. Water as needed for the cover crop to become established. Usually, cover crops are grown for approximately two months before being terminated.

Unlike harvest crops, cover crops are grown to be incorporated back into the soil after their life cycle. The plant matter and nutrients that were taken up by the cover crop are then broken down and returned to the rooting zone of the soil. This allows new crops sown afterward to have better access to nutrients and improved soil quality. To terminate a cover crop, start by cutting it down. This can be done with a lawn mower, string trimmer, or rototiller, among other tools. Use whatever tools you have handy to get the job done. Then, consider how you want to disrupt the root system. For large in-ground beds, many people find a rototiller easiest. Otherwise, use a turning fork in small or raised garden beds.

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Whether you use traditional growing methods or opt for no-till practices, cover crops are for you. To terminate a cover crop using no-till methods, cut down the plant stalks or use the crimping method to fold over and flatten the plant material. This can be done with machinery or by stepping on boards while pushing the plant matter over. Then, cover the crop with a tarp or plastic sheet. This will help to starve the plants of light, trap heat, and induce aerobic conditions that will encourage the initiation of decomposition. The cooler the temperatures are, the longer the crop will need to be covered to achieve termination.

Whether you choose to terminate your cover crop with no-till or tilling methods, be sure to allow three weeks of rest before planting again for the organic matter to begin decomposing. Planting seeds or seedlings into a newly terminated cover crop that has not had time to rest will prevent the new plants from accessing vital nutrients needed to become established.

Growing cover crops is not an exact science. Simply choose seeds that provide a benefit to your soil. Grow legumes for nutrients, brassicas for weed suppression, and grains and grasses for organic matter. Plant a single crop, or mix and match for the most benefits. Growing near livestock? Consider selecting forage-friendly cover crop seeds to benefit your soil and animals. Growing cover crops is an investment in your future harvest. While the primary purpose of a cover crop is to be terminated and incorporated into the soil, its benefits extend to improving future harvests. This practice can lead to decades of healthy and productive soils when regularly grown in the gap seasons. Avoid leaving your soil uncovered, as this can lead to topsoil erosion. Keep your soil where it belongs and look forward to your best harvest yet by growing cover crops. Learn more:

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 nationally 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 our seeds, supplies, and other growing ideas:

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