Best Summer Cover Crops

For weed suppression and a major boost to soil fertility, sow these four fast-growing summer cover crops in any patch possible, even during your prime gardening season.


| August/September 2014



Sunn Hemp Cover Crop Height

Sunn hemp, a nitrogen-fixing legume from the tropics, can soar to an impressive 9 feet high in a matter of weeks.


Photo by Harvey Ussery

No gardening practice yields as many benefits as cover cropping, and growing cover crops in every season is as important as producing vegetables for your table. We too often think gardening reduces soil fertility, but in fact, the more you keep live plants growing, the richer your soil will become. Roots exude substances that feed beneficial soil organisms, including the amazing mycorrhizae (see Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Amazing Underground Secret to a Better Garden). Deep-rooted plants draw minerals from subsoil, which makes the minerals available to shallow-rooted crops. Dead plants, including invisible roots, decompose and release nutrients for use by subsequent crops. Plants also prevent soil erosion, and decomposing roots open channels for oxygen and rain, and provide pathways through which earthworms and other important organisms can migrate. Repeated seasons of organic matter deposition will increase soil carbon, or “humus,” which is crucial to soil fertility, friable texture and water retention.

The ecological benefits of cover cropping go beyond soil improvement: Cover crops scavenge nutrient surges in soil that result from tilling in fresh plant matter or manure. They also prevent runoff pollution and “bank” excess nutrients for later crops. These beneficial covers boost biological diversity in and around gardens, a key to naturally preventing plant diseases and insect damage. Plus, many cover crops perform double-duty as forage for poultry and livestock, making a homestead less dependent on purchased inputs.

Too often, gardeners practice cover cropping only in the off-season — for instance, to protect soil in winter — and assume it’s not a summer option. But it is, and planting summer cover crops provides big payoffs.

Unique Challenges of Summer Cover Crops

Drought and heat. Drought is more likely in summer, so gardeners must choose cover crop species that not only thrive in heat but are also drought-tolerant. Hot, dry soil is also inimical to seed germination, so no summer cover is likely to succeed without a little loving care.

If you broadcast seeds, first work them into the soil, then tamp the soil down with a rake. Even better, drill the seed by hand: Open closely spaced furrows with the corner of a hoe, dribble in seed, cover and tamp. Water immediately and as often as needed to keep the top quarter-inch of soil damp until germination. After plants become established, apply a light mulch to cool the soil and conserve moisture. You can also take advantage of shade offered by an existing crop, such as spring-planted broccoli, by seeding a cover crop into the same bed a couple of weeks before you remove the main crop. Most cover crops are adapted to close planting — the closer you plant, the sooner a tight, shading canopy will form.

Limited space. The greatest difficulty with summer cover cropping is revealed by the first question every gardener asks: “We’re already pushing the garden for maximum production — where do we find any unused space?” First, try hard to dedicate at least one bed in your rotation to growing a cover crop through an entire summer season, or maybe even a whole year. You’ll be amazed by how much an uninterrupted year under cover will do for your soil — and your future crops.

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mahrud
8/13/2014 10:01:39 AM

you can get Buckwheat at Johnny's seeds in their Farm seeds section. Myself, I buy the Fall Green manure mix. :)


ballyshannon
7/25/2014 1:36:00 PM

This sounds great! But I wonder where one gets sudangrass seed, or buckwheat for that matter.






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