A Note on Cover Crops

We ultimately look to our soil to be the source of our nutrition. Naturally, the soil can only give back what we put into it. After having a soil test done by your local extension office you can knowledgeably get to work amending the soil to produce the most nutrient dense food impossible.

However, a most logical, necessary and first step is raising the level of organic matter in the soil. One simple and very effective way is to plant a cover crop during the winter to prepare the soil for the coming growing season.

At a recent lecture on tomatoes, the speaker, a local Master Gardener, shared with us that she uses buckwheat, as well as, red and yellow clovers with great success. In a community garden nearby we planted red clover over the winter and were delighted to find the soil transformed when we went to plant in the spring. Not only were the red clover flowers beautiful but what had been hard clay and almost cement-like became easily workable. Of course we had also added lots of compost including chicken droppings and lots of chopped leaves to retain the moisture.

Your local extension office can offer tips on the best cover crops recommended for your area and the crops you intend to plant. The clovers need to be planted a month or more before the first frost but the grains (barley, oats, rye, buckwheat, etc.) can be planted later.

One of the greatest benefits of using cover crops is their ability to abundantly raise nitrogen levels in the soil. While enriching the soil, the cover crops also keep weeds down. Every bit of the crop gets turned back in, and becomes part of nutrient rich crops.

Improving the soil’s organic matter results in increasing the yield of healthy crops while maintaining good moisture and boosting the microbiological activity in the soil. Since the soil may have many sources of nitrogen such as available in fertilizers, animal manures, and various other compost materials such as straw and nut hulls, once again it is good advice to have the soil tested to attain the balance specifically needed for your chosen crops and plantings.

When it is time to turn the cover crops back into the soil it would be wise to do so while the soil temperature is not too low to ensure more activity in the microorganisms that break down the soil. The moisture level of the soil is also important as breakdown occurs faster if the soil is neither too dry nor too wet. Most of the decomposition will occur in the first 8 inches of soil due to a higher oxygen level. With the right care and restoration that 8 inches of living material can potentially manifest an abundant harvest of healthy crops.

Credits: Elsa Sanchez, Asst. Prof. of Hort. Sys. Mgt., Dept. of Horticulture, Penn State University; M.D. Orzolch, Dept. of Horticulture, Penn State University; Regina Prunty VCE Ext. Agt. Horticulture, King George County; Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.