Cover Crops: Building Soil the Natural Way

| 12/7/2015 11:02:00 AM


A cover crop, also known as a living mulch or green manure, is a mixture of legumes and grasses planted to help build soil health. While planting cover crops isn’t common practice in modern industrial agriculture, it is widely celebrated by many ecologically conscious farmers, gardeners, and foresters around the world. One such notable proponent was Japanese natural farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka, who used cover crops to revegetate desertified, broad-acre landscapes. (Check out his book Sowing Seeds in the Desert.)

Whether you’re working on large landscapes or in a 4-by-8-foot raised bed garden, you can use a cover crop to perform many beneficial biological services. A good cover crop will build soil structure by increasing aeration, water retention, and reduce erosion. Plus, it will help create more biodiversity by inviting beneficial insects, suppressing weeds, pests, and diseases. There isn’t a bad reason to plant a cover crop. With that, here’s a little on what and when to plant.

What and When to Plant

Cover crops will do wonders for building the health of your soil overall, but you can select specific varieties to achieve desired results. For example, choose hairy vetch to fix nitrogen into the soil, or choose rye to help prevent erosion. Here is a great PDF resource for choosing what crops to plant by U.S. region.

The best time to plant a cover crop will depend on your bioregion, soil type, climate, and more. In general, plant cover crops in any soil that could use an added boost of health. It’s true, this could equate in a desire to plant a cover crop across the entire earth’s surface — but let’s start small.

Consider planting in a garden bed previously growing with “heavy feeders,” or vegetables that require a lot of nutrients like corn, melons, squash, and tomatoes. The cover crop will help recharge and replenish those nutrients lost, and prepare the soil for next season’s crop.

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