By Mara Higdon
What is a cover crop?
Cover cropping, also known as “green manure,” is an easy method of soil enrichment and protection. At Bell Garden, we have used winter rye in our beds for the past two years. Though we have not done scientific studies on the soil, our beds seem to be doing very well with minimal disease and pest problems. Our vegetables also seem to be producing more abundant fruit and are more vigorous than in years past. Seed sources in St Louis are:
How do cover crops benefit your garden?
- Increase the amount of organic matter in the soil.
- Suppress weed growth during months when garden bed is not in use.
- Roots of plants aerate soil as the crop grows throughout the winter, making soil easier to work in the spring.
- Crops draw nutrients in their chemical form from deep in the soil and when the garden is tilled or turned over and allowed to decompose within the garden bed nutrients are returned to the soil in a usable form.
- Creates a healthier growing environment for beneficial micro-organisms that fight disease and pests.
- Prevents erosion and wind damage of ground.
- Attracts pollinating insects.
Directions for planting winter rye:
- At the end of the growing season, clear all plant materials from your garden bed, and rake out the soil.
- Broadcast seed over the entire bed and sprinkle a fine layer of soil over the seed.
- Tamp down the soil.
- Water carefully.
- In the spring, three to four weeks before you are ready to re-plant your bed, chop down the cover crop or simply turn it over into your bed. If you’d like, add compost which will increase nitrogen levels which will be a little low initially due to growth of the crop. Nitrogen levels will increase drastically when the cover crops begin to decay. Your garden should soon be ready for planting.
Cover crops for use in smaller garden beds.
Be sure to turn over or till your cover crops before they go to seed or they can turn into pesky weeds!
To plant in fall and winter:
- Winter rye (grass) – grows well in cold season and easy to grow.
- Austrian winter peas (legume) – moderate tolerance to cold, hosts beneficial nematodes, quick to establish, turn under when in bloom.
To plant in spring or summer:
- Buckwheat (grass) – plant in late spring, great at smothering perennial weeds.
- Crimson clover (legume) – plant in summer and /or fall and turn under when flowers are in early bloom.
Mara Higdon is the Program Director at Gateway Greening. They focus on community development throughout the St Louis area.