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All About Growing Cover Crops

Learn which cover crops best suit your needs for spring, summer, fall and winter.

| July 12, 2013

  • "Sustainable Market Farming" by Pam Dawling is a comprehensive year-round guide for the small-scale farmer in every climate zone.
    Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
  • Sweet corn undersown with soybeans and oats. The soybeans will die with the first frost, while the oats will grow later into the winter before winter-killing. In early spring, this patch will be easy to work up for planting.
    Photo Courtesy New Society Publishers
  • A winter cover crop mix of rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover.
    Courtesy of New Society Publishers
  • We undersow our fall broccoli with a mix of red and white clovers. The following spring, we mow the old brassica plants, and leave the clovers growing all year to replenish the soil.
    Courtesy of New Society Publishers

Whether you are a beginning market grower or an established enterprise seeking to take your operation to the next level, Sustainable Market Farming by Pam Dawling (New Society Publishers, 2013) is the resource you need to maximize your harvest without compromising quality of soil fertility. In this excerpt, Pam Dawling gives detailed information about the advantages of using cover crops in all seasons.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Sustainable Market Farming.

There are many advantages to using cover crops in vegetable production, and a wealth of information is available on them. Cover crops can add biomass and nutrients to the soil, smother weeds, reduce erosion, absorb and “store” rain, salvage excess nutrients from a previous crop and also — in some cases — attract beneficial insects. No single solution suits all situations and all times of year, so it’s good to experiment with different ideas, take notes and be flexible about your plans, to take account of the weather, the crops, the weeds and your schedule. See the Resources section and the charts that make up the next chapter for more details.

The First Step

Begin by identifying a possible niche for a cover crop, and think about which of these benefits are your priorities at that site:

• Prevent weeds growing and seeding
• Add organic matter to the soil and increase the biological activity
• Improve the soil and sub-soil structure, tilth, drainage and water-holding capacity
• Prevent erosion by keeping something growing (roots anchor the soil)
• Add nitrogen to feed the next crop (leguminous cover crops)
• Absorb any nitrogen and other nutrients left over from feeding the previous crop (non- leguminous cover crops)
• Encourage beneficial insects (flowering cover crops)

The Second Step

Look at the “cover crop window” you have:

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