The Benefits of Cover Crops

What They Are & When You Plant Them

You may have heard of cash crops that farmers grow for sale. But have you ever considered cover crop benefits? Like anything plant-related, what and when you plant can make or break the benefits.

Cover Crop Benefits

Cover crops are planted for more reasons than harvesting. Depending on the type of plant and time of year, cover crops are used to enhance soil health, prevent erosion, and control weeds. Not only have farmers been embracing cover crops for more sustainable and productive growing seasons, but homeowners can also use these practices to enhance backyard gardens. The trick is in the timing.

  1. Want to improve soil health? Plant clover, vetch, and other legumes in the fall or early spring to maximize their nitrogen-fixing capabilities. This timing also allows the crop to contribute organic matter and nutrients to the soil throughout the season.
  2. Want to control erosion? Plant covers well in advance of heavy rainy seasons to ensure crop roots and foliage can help stabilize the soil.
  3. Want help suppressing weeds? Plant buckwheat or rye as soon as the last of the main crop is harvested. This helps the cover crop become established and grow a dense barrier to outcompete weeds.

While your goals are important, there are also better times of the year to plant certain cover crops.

Seasonal Cover Crops

Just like any plant, cover crops are more effective when planted at a specific time. The timing varies by type of plant, climate, and the specific goals for the crop. Here are some of the guidelines.

  • Fall: This is the most common season to plant cover crops, especially in temperate climates. These crops are meant to help protect the soil throughout the winter and provide organic matter when they decompose in the spring. Popular plants include winter rye, winter wheat, clover, and radishes. The crop can be planted immediately after the last harvest of the season. This allows time to establish before cold weather sets in.
  • Spring: If you didn’t have time to plant a cover in the fall, you can start in the spring, especially if you’re using the cover crop as a natural fertilizer for summer plants. Oats, peas, clover, and buckwheat are some popular spring covers that can be planted as soon as the soil has thawed.
  • Summer: Plant sorghum-sudangrass, buckwheat, cowpeas, and soybeans if you live in a warm climates or want to rotate cash crops harvested early in the season. These cover crops help prevent erosion and improve soil.

Now that you know what and when to plant, let’s look at how.

Tips for Planting Cover Crops

We know the type of plant and time of year is important, but so is the process of planting cover crops.

  1. Prepare the soil by clearing the previous crop and tilling if necessary to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.
  2. Follow recommended seeding rates for your chosen crop to ensure adequate coverage.
  3. Ensure cover crops receive enough water to establish roots but not too much to drown them or invite disease.

By carefully planning when to plant specific cover crops, you can maximize their benefits and contribute to a more robust growing season.

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