Choosing Which Cover Crop to Plant . . . Made Easy!

Cover crops offer a wide range of benefits to your garden or farm including preventing winter erosion when under-planting for weed control amid growing crops and revitalizing your soil with leftover biomass, also referred to as “green manure” which contain copious amounts of nutrients, said to increase yield of future crops. The best way to determine which cover crop might be best for you is to understand what each cover crop seed requires in terms of maintenance and what it offers the mini ecosystem of your grow area. Also, do a soil test and grow a small patch to see how the seed fairs. Most cover crops offer biomass and erosion-preventative properties whether legumes, broadleaf, and/or grass but understanding the differences between these types of cover crops allows insight into how it is benefiting your soil for it’s future crop.

Also, it is good to be familiar with the term "inoculation", a process by which seeds are treated to promote a culture of beneficial bacterium that works in conjunction with the cover crop to convert atmospheric nitrogen into soil nitrogen that plants can use when cover crops are turned under. Read more about inoculation here. Some of our seeds come pre-inoculated but not all as is stated on the cover crop seed product page.

Legumes

Nitrogen fixers–adding 50 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Used to fix soils after cash crop production. These plants generally attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. Inoculation of seeds required before planting, although most come pre-inoculated. Legumes include Field Peas, Common Vetch, Crimson and White Dutch Clover, and Alfalfa.

Cereals, Grasses, & Broadleaf Species

Nutrient scavengers–although it is rare, if you find yourself with too much nitrogen in your soil plant any number of non-legume cover crops which continue to add biomass to your soil but draw 30 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre. These include Wheats, Rye, Barley, and Triticale.

Brassicas: Radish & Mustard

Pest managers–Spring/summer cover crops that help significantly control pests because they contain a higher amount glucosinolate than other brassicas, and this chemical compound wards-off harmful insects, especially when the plant cells are ruptured when the plants are mowed down. If allowed to go to seed, you may have a hard time getting rid of Mustard plants. Mustard and Radish are known for their rapid fall growth, which makes them a great weed suppressor. Try Daikon Radish and Pacific Gold Mustard.

Cover Crop Seeds:


Warm Season:

We consider warm season cover crops to be those seed varieties that will germinate and grow to maturity in warmer temperatures. A warm-season crop can also be winter hardy, but it is rare.

  • Buckwheat – A great summer cover crop that will spring-up and mature so quickly, you’ll be shocked. Very susceptible to frost. Grows and matures within six weeks, making it a great weed suppressor like mustard and radish. It is even possible to do more than one buckwheat crop per year if need be. Sow as early as May and harvest as late as September. 
  • Mustards  As mentioned before mustards help control pests as well as weeds. Due to its rapid growth in the fall, weeds don’t have a chance to take of the soil and grow. Mustard’s roots burrow deeper than other scavengers for nutrients, which also help ward-off soilborne pathogens. Expect about eighty percent soil coverage.
  • Winter Rye  Germinates extremely well in warm temperatures and once established it can withstand temperatures as low as 33°F. Rye also leaves behind a residue that makes it difficult for weeds to grow. High water usage.

Cool Season:

Cool season cover crops usually refer to the seed varieties' ability to germinate and withstand the winter months, or even grow amid colder temperatures. 
  • Alfalfa This upright variety is a cool season cover crop, ideal for spring and late-summer sowing, requires a lot of water and attract pollinators. Often inter-seeded with small grains and grows after grain is harvested. Seed in the spring for summer growth and late summer mowing.
  • Crimson Clover Considered one of the best cover crops for the southeastern united states. Ideal fall and winter growth for this area of the united states. Not suitable for areas where a significant frost occurs. Medium to high water usage.
  • White Dutch Clover Tolerates shaded areas better than other cover crops. A perennial great for pasture and orchard growth, bringing beneficial pollinators.
  • Fava BeansSow in early spring; compared to field peas, Fava Beans need to be planted earlier because it can germinate in cooler temperatures.
  • Hairy Vetch A cool season cover crop that can withstand frost! An ideal cover crop for more temperate climates. Releases nitrogen quicker because of its rapid decomposition habit. Beneficial to soils during or after growing a high-nitrogen-demanding crop.
  • Winter Rye Germinates extremely well in warm temperatures and once established it can withstand temperatures as low as 33°F. Rye also leaves behind a residue that makes it difficult for weeds to grow. High water usage.
  • Common Barley –  A short-season, early maturing crop grown commercially in both irrigated and in dry land environments..
  • Hard Red Winter Wheat - When seeded in early fall, Winter Wheat goes dormant in the winter holding soil in place. It ensures growth as early spring weather warms. Plant in fall for full cover crop growth or plant in spring for half -growth for biomass.

 

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4 comments

  • Carlos 08:03 AM

    Snooks2u, I’d always cut my winter cover crop mix with my riding mower at the highest setting (~4"), making sure I cut all cover crop INTO the garden. Now I cut it with a DR Power Trimmer, again to the inside of the garden. Then I mow over again with the mulching attachment on my power mower, – riding mower if I’m in a hurry or lazy! – at a lower setting, until I finally mulch-mow the cover crop mix at about the lowest cut setting (~1-1 1/2"). Sometimes, I mow first in one direction and then mow at a cross direction (N-S, then E-W) to distribute mowed/mulched cover more evenly. Finally, I till the crop under a few days later, once the mulched cover has dried a bit. If I’m industrious & healthy, I use my broadfork tiller a couple of days AFTER a rain, to work the cover crop and any compost, mulch, fertilizer, bone & blood meal I can add into the soil at least a few weeks before planting (before the average last frost date); that gets my garden aerated to some 14" deep with ‘amendments’). Someday, I will likely try killing the crop with a week killer a few days to a week before I till in under, but I’ve not done it yet; I’m now 72, 11 years after I last started this garden. Mary Ann, re: an electric deer fence. I chose a section of my property that was already fenced with gates on two sides. When deer ‘invaded’ my new garden, I read up on protection and opted to set in a 2nd fence 3’ inside the garden perimeter fence, – just 8’ posts sunk into the ground ~12’ apart. I just strung 500# test nylon fishing line at ~2’, 4’, & 6’ off the ground onto the posts, cut up some leftover plastic fertilizer bags into ~2" wide strips & stagger-tied them on the lines between the posts to blow in the wind. Had no deer in the garden, until the line deteriorated & had to be replaced. (Probably should have used galvanized wire instead of heavy-duty nylon fishing line, especially when the line fell to the ground where I mowed and did not notice; what a pain to remove, wound around the blades!) Hope this helps you consider how you’ll do it. God bless.

  • snooks2u 09:12 AM

    This was the first year I planted a mix cover crop in all of my garden beds, let it grow over the winter. Grew great. I’m now planning my spring garden and want to know do I just cut the green grasses and cover with compost, or till the grasses under? I like the idea of no till soil though so I’m thinking just cut the grass, leave in place and cover with compost. Any thoughts?

  • Mary Ann 04:28 PM

    Great overview, thanks!! Developing a new farm this fall, will need to plant a fall cover crop, maybe a mixture of things. Any idea which are best for fire deterrent? We also have deer, so may need an electric fence!

  • Norma 11:22 AM

    My home is set on 5 acres of pasture, zone 8, Mediterranean climate. Could you recommend a cover crop. I will plant nearest water hose and spread out each year.

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