LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
This week, the Southern Cover Crops Council held its annual conference in Baton Rouge, and I was fortunate to sit in on panel discussions with farmers and specialty crops (vegetables, fruits, nuts and nursery crops) producers. Cover cropping was once a common practice in agricultural history. But by the 1950s in the United States, it was largely abandoned as conventional agriculture relied solely on synthetic fertilizers.
Cover crops have been used throughout recorded history, with Greek and Roman farmers having used legume cover crops in their vineyards to improve the quality of the soil. Europeans in the 1700s used lupines to improve sandy soils, and in the 1800s, cover crops were commonly used by American farmers.
Today we are again seeing a rise in the use of cover cropping systems. What is a cover crop? A cover crop is grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil and planted between cash crops to prevent the loss of nutrients from the soil by water movement, to prevent soil erosion and to provide green manure.
Cover crops are typically fast-growing plants such as brassicas, forbs, grains, grasses and legumes and are planted in late summer or fall into empty or fallow (fallow is a farming technique where land is left idle for one or more seasons) garden beds.
The crops are used to renew soil health by adding organic matter back to the soil and thereby improving the overall soil structure and building the fertility of the soil.
Cover crops are often called “green manure,” as they create a living cover that helps maintain soil health until the next planting cycle. These crops act as a living mulch and protect soils from erosion. Some examples of commonly used cover crops are buckwheat, barley, clover, hemp, millet, mustard mixes, oats, radishes, rapeseed, rye, turnips wheat and winter peas.
As planting cover crops continues to be a beneficial practice for regenerative agriculture and gardening, this technique can be utilized in even the smallest of gardens. In addition to improving soil fertility and reducing the amount of soil erosion and nutrient leaching, cover crops decrease compaction, reduce the number of weeds and improve water and air movement in the soil. They also help increase the activity of earthworms and beneficial microorganisms and provide habitat and food (nectar and pollen) for beneficial insects and pollinators.
Seed mixes are readily available at garden centers, hardware stores and online retailers. Here in the Sportsman’s Paradise, you can find the best selections at hunting and outdoor stores; they’re often sold for deer food plots.
Cover crops may be used in any size garden — from a 4-foot-by-4-foot raised bed to a large farm. Plant your cover crops any time of year after harvest and be sure to select season-appropriate varieties. The crops will need a minimum of four weeks before a frost to become established if you are planting in the fall for a winter cover crop.
If you need to replenish nitrogen in your soil, legumes such as clover, peanuts and soybeans fix nitrogen with the help of bacteria that live on their roots. Legume recommendations for use in home gardens are Berseem and crimson clover, which grow rapidly in late summer or fall and can be turned into the ground in spring. In addition, hairy vetch can be grown in spring or fall.
If your soil is compacted, you can use cereal grains or barley to improve the soil tilth. Many ryes and oats are cool-season crops with fibrous roots that help loosen the soil. Radishes and turnips also help break up deeply compacted soils.
If both nitrogen and organic matter are limited and you also have compaction, use a mixture of legumes and cereals. You can find many combinations of cover crops sold on the market as mixes with at least one grass and one legume species.
To plant, scatter seed over the area to be covered and lightly cover with soil and water in. You also can apply a layer of loose straw to protect the area from wind and runoff from heavy rains. The amount of seed to sow varies with the species — but, in general, cover crops are seeded at a rate of 2 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Follow the label for seeding recommendations.
The cover crop can be terminated and incorporated into the soil at the end of the growing season. Cut down the crop and till it into the soil very quickly. The cover will break down in about two to three weeks and then you can plant your next vegetable crop for harvest or utilize the area for ornamental plants.
Cover crops are used to renew soil health by adding organic matter back to the soil to improve the overall soil structure. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
You can find many combinations of cover crops sold on the market as mixes with at least one grass and one legume species. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Here in the Sportsman’s Paradise, you can find the best selections at hunting and outdoor stores sold for deer food plots. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Cover crops in the field. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter