Cover Crops

Why You Need to Plant Cover Crops

by Sandy Swegel

Here in watery sodden Colorado, our flood waters have mostly receded and people are busy with the arduous task of rebuilding after a disaster.  Seen from above I imagine we would look much like an anthill with thousands of workers scurrying about.  Homeowners dragging ruined carpet and drywall into massive dumpsters. State workers repairing 40-foot gaps in state mountain highways. Disaster recovery crews from Texas to Utah cleaning up this big mess.  1500 volunteers summoned by social media #boulderfloodrelief organized to go in teams to neighborhoods to provide physical labor to anyone who needed it. Food banks gathering enormous amounts of food and distributing it quickly to those in need.

Gardeners and farmers have quite a recovery job.  We have to repair any damage as quickly as possible.  More importantly, we have to keep on the schedule of regular garden tasks.  The regular task in Zones 5 and 6, if you haven’t done it yet, is to get winter cover crops in on bare soil.

Cover Crops are quick-growing plants that protect and can provide many nutrients to the soil.  Some of the most common cover crops are grasses/grains such as Winter Rye.  The other favorites are legumes such as clover, vetch and peas that fix nitrogen in the soil.

Why plant cover crops? 1. They hold the soil in place.  Flood waters make this more real…There are few things sadder to a gardener than the spots where flash floods came through and took away the topsoil, leaving only hard crusty subsoil.  Even without floods, hot winter sun dries out the top inches of soil and then winds blow it right away.  A good cover crop is easier than trying to hold some kind of mulch down. 2. They enrich the soil.  Producing food uses lots of nutrients from the soil. If you let the cover crops grow all winter and then till them in Spring, you now have “green manure.”  All that organic matter from leaves and roots goes right into the soil. This is much easier than cleaning out a barn and hauling manures.  3. They provide additional bee food.  Clovers will often flower before you till them, giving bees and beneficial insects good early season food. 4. Cover crops are just beautiful. Winter rye stays green long after lawns have turned brown and stays green till really hard frosts kill the rye.  It’s beautiful in the cold brown landscape of December to see a mini field of winter rye out in the vegetable beds. 5. They suppress weeds.  By Spring, a fall-planted cover crop has shaded and covered the soil and those zillions of weeds that show up every year never germinate!  Less weeding work…my favorite reason to put in a cover crop.

Cover crops are effective whether you till or not.  In cold winter areas cover crops die on their own and are a good mulch in place even when dead.  Plant your cover crops under fruit trees and you can just mow them.  If you till then cover crops make a huge difference in your soil.

I used to have to give people lots of suggestions about where to find cover crop seeds or how to mix their own.  In the past, I would have to get 10-pound bags from the feed store and find a lot of friends to share it with.  Fortunately for my small garden area, BBB Seed Head Honcho Mike added a green manure cover crop mixture to our catalog last year.  I didn’t even have to ask for it!

For more technical info on cover crops:

Fall Planting Information:

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