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Cover Crop Benefits for Small Space Gardens

Do you know that there are specific plants that can replenish the soil? That’s right. Free workers! Organic workers! Beautiful flowering workers! These plants are commonly known as cover crops, green manure or ground covers.

Cover Crops Definition

A cover crop is a crop grown to enrich the soil, prevent soil erosion, suppress weeds and/or manage pests and disease.

Common Cover Crops

Most cover crops are in the legume family (peas, beans, clover, peanuts, alfalfa) or poaceae family (grasses). Other cover crops include buckwheat, which is part of the polygonaceae family, and some Brassicas (mustard greens, radish).

Cover Crops Benefits in a Small Space Garden

  • Replenish soil with nutrients after planting heavy feeders (broccoli, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumber, squash, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach).
  • Enrich soil with nutrients before planting heavy feeders
  • Prevent soil erosion of garden beds.
  • Suppress weeds to prepare or take back growing space.
  • Manage pests by growing crops to attract or deter them.

Where to Buy Cover Crop Seeds

Johnny’s Select Seeds has a wonderful collection of categorized cover crops that allows you to narrow your search based on your needs. Additionally, they have spring and fall cover crop mixes.

High Mowing Organic Seeds sells a pollinator mix in addition to the common cover crop seeds.

Sustainable Seed Company has a great selection, including organic cover crop seeds.

Summer Cover Crops for a Small Space Garden

Buckwheat Flowers

Buckwheat

Buckwheat is most commonly known as a grain. It is often grown for bee food, as a weed suppressant and for soil fertility. Additionally, it extracts more soil phosphorus than most grains.

Why Grow It: Since phosphorus encourages flower formation and fruit production, buckwheat is a great option to plant before flowering crops. Additionally, it is quick to germinate and flower, making it a great candidate for those with short warm seasons.

Purple Hull Cowpea Flowers

Cowpeas

As the name suggests, cowpeas are part of the legume family. They are great nitrogen fixers and tolerate heat very well, as well as drought conditions. When buying legume seeds, check to see if the seeds are inoculated or if you will need to do so yourself.

Why Grow It: Since nitrogen encourages leaf growth, cowpeas are a great option to plant before leafy greens.

Winter Cover Crops for a Small Space Garden

Crimson Clover

Crimson clover is a legume like peas and beans, so it adds nitrogen to the soil, improving the fertility. It doesn’t like extreme heat or cold. While it is a winter crop, it does not tolerate significant frost. It goes dormant in areas with mild winters and will continue growing in early spring. In addition to working for you as a garden assistant, it adds beauty and has an extensive list of medicinal properties.

Why Grow It: Since nitrogen encourages leaf growth, crimson clover is another great option to plant before leafy greens.

What To Do After You Grow the Cover Crop

  • Cut the cover crop at the soil level, leaving the roots in the ground, and then compost it.
    • When to use this method:
      • Since nitrogen nodules are on the roots of the plants, do not uproot the entire plant, but instead leave the roots in the ground in order to get the benefits.
      • If the cover crop went to seed before you cut it down and you don’t want the seeds in the soil.
  • Turn the entire cover crop plant into the soil and let it decompose in the soil to benefit from its nutrients.
    • When to use this method:
      • If you are growing a cover crop to enrich the soil, do not uproot the entire plant because you will lose out on the benefits of growing it. Most nutrients are found in the leaves, stems and roots of the plant, which is why you want to keep those in the soil to break down.
      • This is a great option for buckwheat since the nutrients are found throughout the plant, as opposed to nitrogen fixers where the nitrogen is focused in the roots.

Management of Cover Crops

Just as you rotate your edible plants, you need to rotate your cover crops.

Any plant, whether it enriches the soil or depletes it, shouldn’t be planted in the same area repeatedly. Change up your cover crops each year just as you rotate what edible crops you grow.

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