Cover Cropping in the Home Landscape
As the daughter of a farmer/rancher and the wife of a landscaper, it is only natural that I whole-heartedly embrace and promote the concept of agriscaping— the marriage of agriculture and landscaping.
Agricultural practices can and should be applied in the home garden and landscape, including the concept of cover cropping. And the winter season is a great time to get started!
What is cover cropping, you ask? A cover crop is planted primarily to manage soil quality, soil erosion, soil fertility, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife in an agroecosystem. The practice of cover cropping has the ability to improve the sustainability of an agroecosystem, and may indirectly improve the qualities of neighboring natural ecosystems.
To fully understand the importance of this practice, let us begin on the cover cropping philosophy from a larger-scale, localized and more agricultural perspective. Although not commonly practiced across the globe, this little slice of heaven we call home sees its fair share of cover cropping thanks to our booming viticulture industry.
Jason Yeager, vineyard manager for Niner Wine Estates, works his cover cropping magic and species know-how to combat a myriad of issues involving pests and soil control.
“I work to match the cover to the situation we are experiencing in our vineyards,” says Yeager. Gardeners should approach their gardens in this same manner.
Much like large-scale agriculture and issues seen in local vineyards, cover cropping is used in the home landscape for four primary functions: improve soil quality, correct nitrogen, prevent erosion and combat pests. Keep in mind that the production of edibles and other plants in your landscape require loads of love and care, and sometimes these “loving” practices can deplete the soil of valuable nutrients, compromise soil health and limit your yields.
Cover crops vary from mustard and vetch, to cereals such as barley and oats, to legumes and many more in between. But which cover is best for you?
Low vigor and organic-matter-deficient soil benefit considerably from cover cropping. Legumes, for example, combined with vetch work to fix nitrogen, improve soil fertility and create biomass for incorporation as organic matter back into the soil. In the home landscape, consider planting fava beans, peas and hairy vetch. These cover crops will also assist in replacing the surplus of nitrogen with essential nutrients.
To prevent erosion (and avoid the unsightly naked soil look), keep your ground covered with cereals such as barley and rye, or consider clover.
If plant parasitic nematodes (wormlike multicellular animals) are the issue, a cover of Brassica species such as mustards, broccoli and radishes can be your solution. When incorporated into the soil, these cover crops will slowly decompose, releasing a naturally occurring fumigation-type of material that irritates and stuns nematodes. The result? Death by starvation—better yet, instant death.
Additionally, some cover crops—primarily cereals such as rye and oats—can actually suppress weeds thanks to their innate dense growing patterns and ability to exude compounds that suppress the germination of weeds.
The list of options and benefits are endless, which is all the more reason to discover the farmer within and start cover cropping, pronto!
After the issue has been determined and appropriate cover crop chosen, it is time to begin the process of planting and caring. You can incorporate your cover crops into your garden through succession planting, or you can interplant, although succession planting is considered easier.
When cover cropping in late fall/early winter, be sure to seed the cover crops at least four weeks before the frost arrives. Cover crops require little maintenance in comparison to most other edibles. But, as in any landscaping situation, the key to keeping the covers functioning and appealing to the eye is control. Cover crops that provide fantastic benefits to an edible garden can also wreak havoc on a nearby landscape if not maintained. For example, clover can be very invasive, so avoid utilizing this cover crop if a lawn is located nearby.
Total annihilation is the next step in your cover cropping plan, and comes just prior to the cover crop beginning to flower. Mow, trim, pull or cut (or even allow a flock of chickens to peck away and do the dirty work for you) and wait several days for the cover plants to dry out and then turn them under. Both the roots and the top growth of your cover crops will contribute organic matter to the soil once they are turned under. Give your cover time to decompose; wait three weeks before planting your garden.
Happy cover cropping!
Cool-Weather Cover Crops and Their Benefits
Barley: somewhat drought tolerant, loosens heavy soils, helps control erosion
Rye: good weed competition, helps control erosion, adds significant organic matter
Clover: fixes nitrogen, attracts beneficial insects, easily established
Legumes: fix nitrogen, help control erosion, good weed competition
Oats: quick grower, adds significant organic matter, loosens heavy soils
Vetch: helps control erosion, fixes nitrogen, easily established