A Guide to Understand Growing Cover Crops: Check How this Guide Helps Beginners

Cover crops prevent soil erosion, regulate moisture, attract pollinators, help with weed and pest management, serve as mulch, provide a source of green manure and organic matter, and are used for grazing or fodder. Cover crops are an agricultural staple that is low cost, easy to maintain, and beneficial for growing other vegetables and flowers. In this article, learn how to plant and use cover crops. 

A Guide to Understand Growing Cover Crops
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A guide to understand growing cover crops

What are some advantages of using cover crops? 

  • Reduce soil erosion, increase residue cover
  • Increase water infiltration 
  • Reduce the need for herbicides 
  • Improve yields by increasing soil health
  • Prevent soil erosion
  • Conserve soil moisture
  • Protect water quality
  • Help protect personal health

Cover crops provide a natural means of controlling soil-borne diseases and pests. It can serve as a mulch to help suppress weed growth. It can provide high-quality material for livestock grazing or forage and provide food and habitat for wildlife, beneficial insects, and pollinators. Cover crops can take up excess water after winter rains, increase water infiltration (as well as soil aeration) along their roots, and retain moisture for subsequent cash crops. 

What do you use to plant cover crops?

  1. Drill – A drill is still a great option for seeding cover crops, especially if you’re going to plant cover after wheat is harvested. It allows you to get the seed as early as possible, so it has time to germinate before winter sets in. 
  2. Air Seeder – Innovative farmers, attach air seeders to combines or tillage equipment to sow seeds during harvest or fall planting. 
  3. Airplane – An aerial application is a low-maintenance option for planting cover crops. A local applicator can cover crops in late summer or early fall when you are busy preparing for harvest. 
  4. Interseeder – An interseeder can plant cover crops between corn rows and, simultaneously, spray a post-emergent herbicide and apply fertilizer to help establish the cover crop. 
  5. Rowbot – Rowbot, a 2×7-foot diesel-powered, articulated robot, can combine cover crops in standing Corn and apply nitrogen fertilizer. 

Are oats a good cover crop? 

  • Oats are fast-growing annual winter-kill crops with many beneficial benefits. 
  • The roots form a mat of organic matter that helps prevent soil erosion, and when grown in the fall, the top becomes the cleanest straw. Sow thickly for the most effective mulch. 

When to plant cover crops? 

Often, farmers plant cover crops immediately after harvesting their main crop so that the crops do not interfere with each other’s growing season. It works well in other areas, but there may not be enough time for a cover crop in cold climates before winter. In addition, gardeners often worry about the space it takes to grow cover crops, which prevents them from planting beneficial plants in their gardens. However, cover crops can easily fit into almost any garden plan. The best way to do this is by planting in succession.

An example of succession planting is when gardeners can plant a fast-growing cover crop such as Buckwheat after spring crops such as lettuce or radishes are grown and harvested. Buckwheat can begin flowering in many environments, and there will still be time to plant cool-weather or fall vegetables when Buckwheat is tilled into the ground. Succession planting can also occur in the fall, after growing Cabbage and other main season crops. 

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How to plant cover crops?

  • To replenish nutrients, a cover crop must grow and then die. Cover the plant a month before the first frost. To plant, loosen the soil to a depth of 4 inches and remove all existing growth. Smooth the soil and scatter the cover crop seeds and rake the soil to cover the seeds. 
  • After they grow, cover crops are not harvested but instead planted in the soil, where their nutrients can benefit the garden. To do this, cut the cover crop a few weeks before planting your garden in the spring. Leave the cut structure crop in the garden for a week and then put it back into the soil. Be sure to cut cover crops before they go to seed to prevent unwanted growth later in the season. 

What are cover crops? 

As the name suggests, these are soil-cover plants for certain reasons. Unlike primary species, they serve the needs of secondary farmers rather than being grown for trade or human consumption. They improve soil health, increase yields, and feed the cattle. In alternative situations, they serve as exclusive crops, and you can also find them on the plate (for example, Buckwheat or Corn).

The difference is that these species are used as grasses in the case of fall cover crops. A cover crop is a plant used to reduce erosion, improve soil health, increase water availability, help control pests and diseases, and suppress weeds. It is biologically used to increase diversity and bring many other benefits to your farm.

What are the different types of cover crops? 

There are three basic families of cover crops, and they each present specific advantages and challenges: 

  1. Cereals – such as annual grasses, Rye, Oats, and Wheat. These crops build biomass and break up soil compounds with extensive root systems. Their leaves also improve water infiltration by reducing water movement from rain or overhead irrigation. 
  2. Legumes – such as Peas, Soybeans, Clover, and Vetches are commonly known as nitrogen fixers. The types within this family each do slightly different things. Legumes enjoy a reputation for being nitrogen-enriching as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop. When the plants are large, their vigorous taproot system helps deal with unwanted underground compaction. Also, the bigger the plant, the more nitrogen it can fix. Crimson and White Clover, Cowpeas, Alfalfa, Hairy Vetch, and Fava Beans are examples of legumes. 
  3. Broadleaves – such as Buckwheat, Mustard, and Alyssum. These grow quickly to shade unwanted things, such as weeds and are easy to use for nutritional benefits. 

Do cover crops need fertilizer? 

Yes, apply fertilizer before your cover crop, whether it’s compost or commercial fertilizer. Cover crops help to maximize plant growth and mineralization in the carbon biological cycle. 

What is the best cover crop for vegetable gardens? 

Oats are an excellent annual cover crop that prevents erosion and loosens tight soils. Field peas, Mustard, and Barley, are good annual cover crops. Berseem clover is a fast-growing annual legume that will fix nitrogen in the soil. Planting cover crops for vegetable gardens is another way to introduce organic matter into the garden to facilitate healthy growth and production. Cover crops in the garden improve the physical structure and fertility of the soil.

Growing cover crops for vegetable gardens also prevents soil erosion, reduces weed problems, helps retain water, and provides cover for beneficial insects. It provides nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients. Cover crops that attract beneficial insects are called “trap crops” to help control insect pests. Cover cropping for vegetable production is sometimes referred to as green manuring, referring only to the type of plant used in the cover crop.

Green manure refers to plants that are in the pea family. Green manures of the pea family are unique in that they enrich soil nitrogen levels due to bacteria in their root systems that fix nitrogen gas from the air for plant use. Pea seeds should be treated with a bacterium available from a garden center before planting as a cover crop, as the bacterium cannot naturally survive in your soil. 

The most common way to use a cover crop in your vegetable plot is to do best in cool weather. These cover crops are planted late in the season after the initial vegetable crop has been harvested. They are left to grow all winter and into the following spring. Eventually, they are harvested and turned into the soil, where they will break down and provide many benefits. 

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Cover crop
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Do cover crops reduce pests? 

Cover crops reduce the spread of insect pests by increasing the abundance of predators, but to maintain these benefits; it is critical to protect these predator species. Cover crops produce compounds that help fight soil-borne pests, while others are great at attracting beneficial insects. 

Here are some pest-fighting plants;

  • Crimson clover: Blooms to support beneficial insects 
  • Buckwheat: It supports large populations of beneficial insects and pollinators 
  • Cereal rye: It reduces soil-borne diseases and root-knot nematodes not suitable for crops affected by cutworms and wireworms 
  • Wheat: Suppresses diseases and nematodes. 
  • Mustard: Suppresses nematodes 
  • Rapeseed: Suppresses Rhizoctonia root rot fungus 

Are cover crops allowed in organic farming? 

Organic crop production management should cover a diversified planting scheme. For perennial crops, this should include plant-based ground cover crops. For annual crops, this should include diverse crop rotation methods, cover crops (green manure), intercropping, or other diverse methods of plant production.

These crops are cultivated without chemical fertilizers through biological nitrogen fixation Increases fertility. Smallholder farmers choose to grow specific cover crops based on their needs and goals and the overall needs of the land they are working on. Summer cover crops are often used during crop rotations to fill in space, amend the soil, or suppress weeds. 

Do you harvest cover crops? 

  • After they grow, cover crops are not harvested but instead planted in the soil, where their nutrients can benefit the garden. 
  • To do this, cut the cover crop a few weeks before planting your garden in the spring. 

Which cover crop grows the fastest? 

Buckwheat, Annual Ryegrass, Rye, Berseem Clover, Austrian Winter Pea, Sorghum Sudan Hybrid, Sudan Grass, and Oats are all fast-growing crops ideal for providing quick cover between crops or in sensitive areas. 

How much time does it take to harvest the cover? 

  • Be sure to allow cover crops at least two weeks to decompose, release nutrients, and recharge soil moisture. 
  • If the spring is unusually dry or the long-range forecast predicts dry conditions, cut cover crops if they are about 6 to 8 inches tall. 

What is a good cover crop for winter? 

Some cover crops add nutrients directly to the soil by fixing nitrogen in their roots. Examples include winter field beans and peas, clover, and vetch. These are mainly cereals planted after the fall harvest of cash crops. Their purpose is to act as a natural ground “shield” until spring sowing, not to produce. The basic requirements for their growth are sufficient warmth in the fall and sufficient moisture in the spring.

They prevent soil erosion, fight weeds, conserve moisture, reduce the leaching of nutrients, and use them. In addition, their seeds require additional costs, can be difficult to terminate, can cause allelopathic effects, and can interfere with the growth of the primary culture. Plant cover protects against diseases and pathogens but can also have the opposite effect.

What is the cheapest cover crop? 

  • Oats are ideal for farmers looking for a low-cost, reliable cover crop. They grow best in well-drained soil and cool, moist conditions. 
  • One of the benefits of oats is increased nutrition. When planted early, oats take up additional nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil. 

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Do cover crops improve the soil? 

  • Cover crops provide multiple benefits to cropping systems. They can prevent soil and wind erosion, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve physical and biological properties, improve soil water availability, and break the cycle of pests, among other benefits. 
  • Cover cropping is popular due to soil depletion from the intensive rotation of cash crops, and little is added to the soil after harvest. However, the high demands of farming mean that the levels of organic matter and available nutrients in the soil are decreasing. 
  • Many farmers are already proactive about soil health by using multiple crops/green manures to help improve soil structure and nutrient availability. 

Do cover crops increase yields? 

  • Farmers who planted Corn in the field after a cover crop had a 3.1 percent increase in yield compared to fields that were not covered. Similarly, Soybean production increased by 4.3 percent after cover crops. 
  • Cover crops are plants grown to suppress weeds, help build and improve soil, and control diseases and pests. 
  • Most established crops after cover crop will show an increase in yield. It covers the financial benefits of investing time and money in using cover crops. You may not see an immediate increase in productivity. As the rotation continues with cover crops, yields should increase. 

Is a sweet potato a cover crop? 

  • Cover cropping is a technique for growing low-lying crops, such as Sweet Potatoes, Melons, Pumpkins, Beans, and Peas. 
  • Many leafy vegetables cover the ground when their seeds are widely scattered (broadcast). 
  • A cover crop helps prevent soil from being washed away during rain. 

How to care for cover crops? 

To make the most of cover crops, pick one or two and try them out in your garden. Cover crops can be used in various ways, such as being planted after the main crop, grown for an entire season to fully benefit the soil, or interspersed between main cropping seasons. Compared to most crops, cover crops require very little maintenance. Sometimes, mowing can help keep cover crops manageable if they are tall, and some cover crops increase their root growth if mowed multiple times.

Crops must be watered during drought. In most situations, cover crops must be killed before they go to seed, and their top growth gets out of control. The best time to kill cover crops is when they flower or as seed heads emerge. To kill them, cut the crops and wait a day or so until the cut stems and leaves are dry and brown. Dig these pieces of dead crops into the soil, as long stems or vines can interfere with tillage. Wait at least three weeks before putting cover crops into the soil but before planting vegetables or flowers where once cover crop nutrients are allowed to take hold in the soil. 

Can cover crops improve water quality? 

Cover crops can improve water quality by reducing nutrient, pesticide, or sediment losses from agricultural fields. Cover crops release excess water through evapotranspiration. A mulch-like effect in cover crops increases water infiltration and helps conserve soil moisture during dry periods.

Earthworms that thrive in most cover crops improve water infiltration and plant debris transformation, and their activities are transferred to the soil. Cover crops allow residues to remain on the surface where earthworms prefer to eat, supporting earthworm populations. Conserving moisture helps improve overall soil health. Better water infiltration helps make water use more efficient, leading to more stable crop yields.

What are the best cover crops in raised beds?

There are many cover crops for raised beds, from legumes with their nitrogen-fixing nodules to flowering cover crops that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to your home vegetable garden. Look for crops to plant that grow quickly in their first few weeks, such as crimson clover or beans, and are easy to weed. It will allow you to quickly improve your garden soil and grow vegetables and flowers in your raised bed. 

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Green manure field
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In addition to overall soil improvement, your raised bed improves moisture retention, increases the amount of above- and below-ground biomass improves soil organic content, and reduces compaction, earthworms, and other benefits. In addition, insects are attracted to and provide a habitat in your garden. Cover crop types for raised beds are Buckwheat, Alfalfa, Clover, Rye, Oats, Millet, Sorghum, Lentils, Peas, Cowpeas, Barley, Mustard, and Wheat. 

How to sow the cover crop seeds?

  1. The use of cover crop seed is as important as the use of the commercial seed, and the method will affect the germination rate. Using equipment that allows for accurate application at the correct rate will save money and help ensure adequate coverage. Because cover crop seed sizes and weights vary, it is important to match equipment to both seed and management practices. 
  2. Cover crops are always seeded directly into the ground rather than transplanted from pots. Using legume seed, inoculate it 24 hours before planting (unless the seed company has already inoculated it). Use a hoe or fork to loosen the soil to a depth of at least 3 or 4 inches and remove any existing vegetation. Smooth the soil with a stiff metal rake to create an even seed bed. 
  3. Spread the seed with a seed spreader (the same tool used to spread grass seed) or by hand at the rate indicated on the seed package. Application rates range from one to four pounds per 1,000 square feet, depending on the crop variety. 
  4. Rake the soil again to cover the plant seed. Small seeds (like Rye) must stay close to the surface, so give them a very light rake. Larger cover crop seeds like Fava Beans need to go deeper, so rake the soil more vigorously for them. Keep the seed bed moist with a sprinkler until germination. Or, you can wait for the rain to come and water for you.

Are cover crops profitable? 

Depending on each field and field-specific conditions, cover crops can provide relatively immediate returns, such as grazing, or take 2-3 years to provide a return. It is not unlike how planting aged lime can take 2-3 years to pay off, or buying new equipment can take a few years of cash flow. 

Cover crops increase crop yields, break up plow pans, add organic matter to the soil, improve crop diversity in fields, and attract pollinators. Nitrogen is not the only nutrient managed by cover crops. Cereal Rye is excellent for nutrient cycling. Buckwheat and Brassicas improve soil phosphorus availability. Although known for nitrogen fixation, legumes such as Clover, Vetch, and Chickpea also help cycle phosphorus in the soil. 

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What are the disadvantages of cover crops? 

  • Plant when time and labor are limited. 
  • Additional costs (planting and killing).
  • Difficult to profitability, especially for small farms. 
  • Not all cover crops will grow in all climates. 
  • Extensive knowledge of crop interactions is required. 
  • Stronger herbicides may be required to remove hardy winter cover crops. 
  • All cover crops will have downsides, whether they attract pests or release too much nitrogen. 
  • Farming during seasons you don’t normally farm requires a lot of work.

Conclusion

Cover crops are primarily used to increase soil health, thus creating a better growing environment for items in the garden. They are also known as “green manures.” Fertilizers and compost can also improve soil health after harvest, but cover crops are a natural option for replenishing nutrients. Cover crops return nutrients extracted by the crop back to the soil. Often, cover crops replenish the soil with nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Cover crops can be used in combination with compost to build fertile soil. 

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