Agriculture plays a crucial role in poverty reduction and improving food security. A report published by the World Bank indicates that 80% of the rural population depends on agriculture for economic growth.
For agriculture to continue playing its crucial role, improving soil health is inevitable. And that is where cover crops come in.
Learn more about cover crops, their varieties, and the best time to plant them in this post.
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What is a Cover Crop, and Why Do You Need One?
A cover crop is any plant grown to protect the soil and enrich it rather than for its harvest. You can grow cover crops to protect the soil surface and provide nutrients.
Growers use cover crops for several reasons. They include:
- To improve soil health. Cover crops combat weed growth and conserve soil moisture. This keeps the soil productive.
- To boost yields. Legumes are a good source of green manure. When you plant them as cover crops, they supply the soil with organic matter for the next crop. This improves yields.
- To provide animal feed. Grasses such as rye and wheat are great animal feeds. You can cut them and feed the clippings to your animals or use the space for grazing.
- To prevent soil erosion. Cover crops have fibrous roots that hold soil particles firmly. This prevents wind and soil erosion.
When to Plant Cover Crops
You can plant cover crops in two seasons:
- In the fall to allow them to grow over the winter
- Early spring so that they grow over the summer.
The ideal time to plant cover crops depends on the crop type. Legumes are ideal if you want to increase nitrogen in the soil.
Since most legumes, such as fava beans, and grasses (rye and barley) thrive at low temperatures, you can plant them in the fall.
In late winter, cowpeas, soybeans, and buckwheat do well.
Best Cover Crops for Beginner Gardeners
If you are new to gardening, the following are easy-to-grow cover crops for your growing plots.
1. Winter Rye
Winter rye is a member of the wheat family and an easy-to-grow cover crop. As you begin your gardening journey, consider winter rye because:
- It will survive through winter when many crops perish and begin growing again in the spring.
- Has minimal requirements to plant and grow. You need about 2 lb. of seed for a 1,000 sq. ft garden.
- It requires no fertilizer.
- If you plant during the dry season, you only water before germination.
- You can use it to feed your animals in addition to improving soil health.
- Its hardy and resistant nature makes it thrive in different climatic zones.
- It draws nutrients deep into the soil, hence improving fertility.
You should mow winter rye before it flowers to prevent it from reseeding and sprouting with the next crop.
Soybeans do well in summer when temperatures are high. You can also plant them in late spring.
Soybeans are ideal as a cover crop for beginners because:
- They are a perfect size for containers and small spaces. You can grow them in your kitchen garden.
- They thrive in different soils, including sand, clay loam, and alluvial soil.
- They grow rapidly and mature faster, paving the way for your next planting season.
- They fix nitrogen in the soil and add green manure. This improves soil productivity.
If you want to use the crop for green manure, turn it over before flowering when the leaves are green.
Buckwheat is an easy-to-grow cover crop. If you are new to gardening, this crop is a splendid choice because:
- It has no strict spacing requirements.
- It has reliable germination even when you broadcast the seed.
- You can spread the planting season throughout the warm months.
- It is fast growing, hence covering the soil fast, preventing erosion and moisture loss.
- It is resistant to insect and disease attacks.
- It does not require field practices after germination.
- It does not become a weed problem in the subsequent seasons.
Planting buckwheat requires little manpower since you can broadcast seed it instead of using rows or individually planting the seeds. Besides, it requires no watering after germination.
Some of the benefits of buckwheat are organic matter supply, weed suppressing, and soil building.
Barley is a great winter annual crop. You can plant it from September to February, depending on your location, when conditions are warmer because it is less resistant to low temperatures.
As a new gardener, you should choose barley because:
- It uses water efficiently, and therefore you can grow it without irrigation.
- It is easy to kill using herbicides as you prepare to plant the next crop. You should kill it off before it starts flowering.
- Barley is less prone to bacterial and fungal attacks as it produces alkaloids, which inhibit the growth of these pests.
- It is more tolerant of drought than other cover crops.
- You can use it to feed your livestock.
If you inter-crop it with legumes, they can fix nitrogen in the soil.
Cowpeas work well when mixed with other cover crops. They do well in summer, and therefore you can plant them at the end of spring.
New to gardening? You can grow cowpeas for your garden cover this summer.
- Cowpeas are heat and drought resistant.
- They grow fast.
- You can grow them in containers or in your small kitchen garden.
Cowpeas suppress weeds and are good fillers in gaps between upward summer crops. They have long taproots which hold soil particles together, hence preventing soil erosion.
You should mow them before flowering because they tend to vine and become difficult to remove.
6. Fava Beans
Fava bean is a common cover and forage crop. It does well in cold weather, and therefore, you can plant it at the onset of winter.
Consider planting fava beans this fall to improve your garden’s soil fertility.
- You plant them directly in the garden without bedding.
- They require minimal staking because they don’t flop over as they increase weight.
- They only need an inch of water per week
- They do well without nitrogen fertilizer since they fix nitrogen in the soil.
If you plant fava beans during the dry season, soak them first to break dormancy and speed up germination.
Unlike other legumes, you can turn fava beans to the ground after harvesting all beans and flowers. But you can only use the leaves and foliage as green manure since the stems are too woody.
Sorghum is a good cover crop, especially for improving worn-out soils. It can help penetrate compacted subsoil while smothering weeds and enriching the soil.
Sorghum is a good cover crop because:
- It is relatively drought-tolerant.
- It has a low production cost.
- You can use it for silage.
- You can plant it after many crops.
- Sorghum isn’t popular with insect and disease organisms.
You can also plant sorghum before summer since it does well in high temperatures.
Millet does well in mid-summer. You can plant it after harvesting early-season cash crops such as wheat, potatoes, and spring greens.
Here are reasons why you should grow millet as a cover crop:
- It does well without fertilizer.
- It requires one inch of water per week if you grow during the dry season.
- It requires less labor because you can broadcast seed it.
- It withstands drought.
- It is resistant to parasites and diseases.
- Millet grows fast.
- It is good for grazing.
Millet builds soil and prevents erosion during storms. Its fast growth rate makes it an excellent weed suppressor.
You can remove millet through tillage or chemical use. It also is unlikely to survive winter.
9. Austrian Winter Pea
Austrian winter peas are a popular cover crop. They produce quality green manure and are therefore good for the improvement of soil fertility.
You can plant Austrian winter peas in your garden at the start of winter. They do well in this season, hence the name.
Why should you grow Austrian winter peas?
- They are tolerant of low temperatures.
- It is an ideal food for livestock.
- It makes good mulch for your crop after winter.
- You can use its flowers for salad making and is a great source of nectar for honeybees.
- They sprout easily and you can grow them in containers.
Austrian winter peas fix nitrogen, making your garden soil more productive. Besides, they harbor bacteria useful to other legumes such as beans and snap peas.
Therefore, Austrian winter peas are great if you plan to grow legumes after winter.
With a variety of easy-to-grow cover crops to choose from, to attain better results, you should mix legumes and cereal crops.
The crops you choose depend on your soil type and reason for planting. For example, legumes can do well if you are preparing the soil for the season after winter.
Grasses, on the other hand, prevent soil erosion. You can also use them as livestock feed.
That said, cover crops are beneficial to your soil. Choose one that matures fast as you prepare for the next crop in your rotation.