Choosing Cover Crops for the Homestead

Learn about the types of crops perfect to use for food as well as choosing cover crops for the homestead.

| April/May 2000

Cover crops for the homestead

Flowering mustard makes a great cover crop.


Here are a variety of plants you can use when choosing cover crops for the homestead farm.

LEGUMES When choosing cover crops edible legumes can be grown for food as well as cover. When sown in fall, they provide protection against winter soil erosion. Flowering in spring, they provide a food source for beneficial insects. And, even when the pods are harvested, the vines still provide lots of organic matter — and some nutrients — when turned back into the soil. Keep in mind, however, that your soil will benefit most from an unharvested crop turned under at its nutritional peak.

ALFALFA (Medicago sativa) is a slow-growing perennial with a deep taproot and aggressive secondary roots that can be hard to handle. "Nitro-alfalfa" has become the home gardener's best bet. While faster growing than regular alfalfa, it's mild-mannered and therefore easier to kill. Sow in spring or summer.

BELL BEAN(Vicia faba), also known as fava bean, isn't really a bean at all but rather a member of the vetch family. A vigorous taproot and abundant foliage provide an enormous amount of easily tilled organic matter. Bell beans tolerate acidic soils and temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Sow in the fall or very early spring.

CLOVERS include both annuals and perennials. Berseem clover (Trifolium alexandrinum) is a productive summer or winter annual that tolerates a wide range of soil conditions. Crimson clover (T. incarnatum) , a winter-hardy annual growing one to three feet high, won't multiply with runners and is easily eliminated through tilling. Dutch white clover (T. repens), a low-growing perennial, is easily cultivated and can be grown as a living mulch in garden paths or between rows of vegetables. Red clover (T. pratense) is a quick-growing biennial that can be planted from spring through fall. Subterranean clover (T. subterraneum) is a cool-season reseeding annual, best for sowing under taller crops or in vineyards and orchards. New Zealand white clover (T. repens) is a hardy, long-lived perennial that is taller and more heat-resistant than Dutch white clover. Sow clovers spring through fall, depending on the species.

PEAS are edible legumes and include the cold-hardy field pea (Pisum sativum) and Austrian field pea (Lathyrus hirsutus), both of which produce rapid growth in the spring. Sow in the fall or very early spring. Cowpeas (Vigna sinensis), also known as Southern peas, are grown as a summer annual, putting on rapid growth during hot weather.

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