5 Cover Crops That Will Keep A Small Plot Healthy

Winter vegetation isn't just for big farms. Learn why you should be sowing these after your last harvest.

November 16, 2015
small garden
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE HARRINGTON/GETTY

During winter, when the next year’s seed catalogs arrive in my mailbox, I always turn first to the pages that show the cover crops. These temporary, ground-blanketing stands of grasses and legumes protect and enrich soil. Cover crops are essential for improving soil not only on large-scale farms but in backyard gardens, too. Specifically, they can: 

Improve Garden Health
Cover crops add organic matter to soil. And some have large, deep root systems that loosen compacted soil. 

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Related: Cover Crop Basics

Reduce Erosion
The roots and tops of cover crops protect soil from water and wind. 

Increase Fertility
Vetch, clover, and other legumes add nitrogen, a plant nutrient. 

Encourage Beneficial Insects
Cover crops nurture pest predators, such as ground beetles. 

To plant a winter cover crop, scatter seeds throughout the garden as soon as you harvest your last vegetables of the season, or sow them between the rows of remaining fall crops. Rake lightly to cover the seeds; then keep the ground moist to get them up and growing. The earlier you plant in fall, the more they’ll grow before winter sets in and the better they’ll do their job. 

Plenty of seed catalogs list a half dozen or more types of cover crops, individually and in mixtures. For most gardeners, annuals are the best choice on account of their short life span—they’ll have completed their life cycle by the time spring rolls around. At home, I usually sow a mixture of legumes and small grains to get the benefits of added nitrogen from the former and weed-suppressing biomass from the latter. High Mowing Organic Seeds sells some great mixes designed for both farmers and gardeners. 

When spring arrives, till the cover crop into the soil and let it decompose in place. Or follow no-till practices by mowing the topgrowth (once flowering has occurred) and digging only as much as is necessary to sow your spring crops or set out transplants. Leave the tops lying between rows to serve as mulch.

 

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Five Cool-Weather Covers

Tillage Radish
When to plant: Late summer or early fall; it won’t survive northern winters
Best use: On heavy soil 
Benefits: Long taproots break up hardpan; grows quickly

Hairy Vetch
When to plant: Late summer or fall 
Best use: On acidic, well-drained soils 
Benefits: Regrows vigorously in spring following fall planting; adds nitrogen

Field Peas
When to plant: Spring or fall 
Best use: On soils lacking organic matter
Benefits: Smothers weeds; adds nitrogen

Crimson Clover
When to plant: Spring or fall 
Best use: Beneath taller crops, since it tolerates shade 
Benefits: Helps control erosion; adds nitrogen; can be used as forage

Winter Rye
When to plant: Late summer or fall 
Best use: On soils lacking organic matter 
Benefits: Germinates and grows in cold soil