Greener BeeGreen Living12 of the Best Cover Crops for Your Garden

Also known as green manure, cover crops are plants grown for the purpose of adding organic matter to your soil.

Organic matter from broken down plant material is vital for soil health. Not only does it contain essential nutrients for the growth of new plants, organic matter also stores carbon in the soil. This is important for maintaining the earth’s atmosphere and mitigating climate change.

Cover crops are typically planted in the fall or early spring when your garden beds are empty. You can also plant them in open areas during your growing season.

They can either be pulled up or tilled under when finished, or left in place to die over winter. It’s best to wait 3 to 5 weeks after tilling for the cover crop to decompose before planting any food or ornamental plants.

Almost any plant could be used as a cover crop, although the plants given below stand out because they’re fast, easy to grow and have proven benefits for your soil. You can get seeds at most garden centers or online retailers.

alfalfa

1. Alfalfa

Scientific name: Medicago sativa

Benefits: Alfalfa’s long tap roots are good for breaking up hard soils, which improves soil aeration and drainage. The long roots can also bring up trace minerals from deep in the soil. Alfalfa is a legume that fixes nitrogen in the soil.

Hardiness: Perennial in USDA zones 3 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring

Maintenance: Can be tilled under in summer or fall. Good to shear the plants periodically to prevent flowering and seeding.

field of green growing barley in late spring / early summer

2. Barley

Scientific name: Hordeum vulgare

Benefits: Barley has a short growing season, so it is ideal for northern gardens. It produces more biomass in a shorter time than other cereal grasses used for cover crops. Barley is also drought resistant.

Hardiness: Annual, but can live over winter in USDA zones 8 and higher. Barley will die over winter in lower zones.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring in lower zones, or fall for zones 8 or higher.

Maintenance: Barley does not reseed very well, so you can let it grow throughout your regular season, and let it die over winter in lower zones or till in spring for higher zones.

Berseem clover

3. Berseem Clover

Scientific name: Trifolium alexandrinum

Benefits: Berseem clover builds the most nitrogen in your soil compared to all other legume crops. It also creates the most biomass of all the clovers.

Hardiness: Annual, but can live over winter in USDA zones 8 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring or early summer in lower zones, or fall for zones 8 or higher.

Maintenance: If you cut or mow the plants prior to seed set, they can grow back at least 2 to 3 times over your growing season to provide more organic matter.

Buckwheat

4. Common Buckwheat

Scientific name: Fagopyrum esculentum

Benefits: Buckwheat can germinate within days of planting if planted in warmer weather. It can tolerate drought and poor soils. It will start to bloom after about 5 weeks and is excellent for supporting bees and other pollinators.

Hardiness: There are a few different varieties of buckwheat. Some are perennial, but common buckwheat is an annual. This is ideal because it dies over winter.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring or early summer

Maintenance: Mow or cut down buckwheat within two weeks of the first flowering if you want to avoid setting seed.

Crimson Clover

5. Crimson Clover

Scientific name: Trifolium incarnatum

Benefits: The fastest growing annual nitrogen fixer, which makes it great for fall seeding. Grows well in many conditions, including shade.

Hardiness: Annual, but can live over winter in USDA zones 8 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Due to its rapid growth, you can seed in spring, summer or fall.

Maintenance: Cutting or mowing when crimson clover starts to set flower buds will kill the plants. If you want it to flower and reseed, it will naturally die back after flowering.

Mustard

6. Fall Mustards

Scientific names: Sinapsis alba (aka. Brassica hirta), Brassica juncea, or Brassica nigra

Benefits: All plants in the cabbage family have been shown to release biotoxic compounds that act against bacteria, fungi, insects, nematodes and weeds. These compounds are especially high in mustard crops.

Hardiness: Annuals, but may live over winter in USDA zones 8 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring or summer

Maintenance: The biotoxic compounds of mustards are only released when individual plant cells are ruptured. In order to maximize this, it’s best to till the plants under to break them up and incorporate them into the soil during your growing season.

Green rye field on cloudy day. Nature green background

7. Fall or Winter Rye

Scientific name: Secale cereale

Benefits: Rye is the hardiest cereal crop, so it makes an excellent winter cover crop in most climates. Rye quickly establishes a dense root system, which effectively suppresses weeds and breaks up hard soils.

Hardiness: Annual, but will live over winter in USDA zone 3 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring or fall

Maintenance: Beneficial to cut the plants periodically to prevent flowering and seeding.

Field Peas

8. Field Peas

Scientific name: Pisum sativum subsp. arvense

Benefits: Field peas grow rapidly in cool, moist weather. Their succulent stems break down easily for a quick source of available nitrogen.

Hardiness: Annual, but will live over winter in USDA zone 6 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Early spring

Maintenance: Field peas tend to stop growing in hot weather, so they’re best grown in spring and tilled under in early summer.

Vicia_villosa
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

9. Hairy Vetch

Scientific name: Vicia villosa

Benefits: Hairy vetch is the hardiest legume cover crop, so it overwinters well and provides plenty of soil nitrogen for spring.

Hardiness: Annual, but will live over winter in USDA zone 4 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Fall

Maintenance: Hairy vetch grows slowly at first, but will continue establishing roots over winter. In spring, it grows long, vine-like branches up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) long. This provides great biomass as long as you have a tiller strong enough to break them up. Otherwise, cut hairy vetch early to prevent its extensive growth.

Yellow Tagetes patula flowers. French marigold flowers in blossom.

10. Marigolds

Scientific name: Tagetes species

Benefits: Marigolds can control a variety of pests, including nematodes, fungi, bacteria, weeds and insects. Research has shown marigolds are most effective when planted in large quantities as a cover crop.

Hardiness: Annual, will die as soon as temperatures reach freezing.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring

Maintenance: Can be tilled under in summer or fall.

Related: Do Marigolds Really Repel Garden Pests?

oats

11. Oats

Scientific name: Avena sativa

Benefits: Oats grow well in cool weather, so they can be planted in the fall. They also can improve the productivity of legumes when planted in a mixture.

Hardiness: Annual, but can live over winter in USDA zones 7 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Summer or fall alone, or spring as part of a mixture with legumes.

Maintenance: When planted in spring, oats can be tilled under with your legume crop. If planting in summer or fall alone, try to seed them 40 to 60 days before your first frost. This will give them enough time to mature, but they will be winter killed before they set seed.

Flower of clover in full bloom

12. White Clover

Scientific name: Trifolium repens

Benefits: White clover can make a good living mulch in areas such as footpaths, between shrubs and trees, or on slopes. It only grows 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) high and does well with regular mowing or foot traffic.

Hardiness: Perennial in USDA zones 3 and higher.

Best time to sow seeds: Spring or summer

Maintenance: Can be tilled under in summer or fall, or left as a long-term, nitrogen-fixing groundcover.

Related
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9 Mistakes to Avoid When Planting a New Vegetable Garden
Which Type of Mulch Is Best for Your Garden?

Article source: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/12-of-the-best-cover-crops-for-your-garden.html


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