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Utilizing Cover Crops for Your Edible Landscape

[This article was printed in the June 2014 issue of the Highlands Laurel, authored by Sustenance Design founder Lindsey Mann]

Cover cropping is a foundational practice in organic agriculture of growing seasonal plants, not for sale or consumption, but instead to benefit the soil.  We can utilize this wonderful method to manage and improve smaller-scale gardens.  Also considered green manure or living mulch, cover crops benefit a garden in a myriad of ways (Permaculture refers to incorporating a plant with multiples uses as stacking functions.):

  • Prevent wind and water erosion
  • Suppress weeds
  • Prevent soil crusting and reduce compaction
  • Mitigate heat and baking sun
  • Manage soil moisture levels
  • Increase organic matter in soil
  • Fix nitrogen (clovers and legumes)
  • Accumulate trace minerals and nutrients to make them available to other plants

Practiced gardeners understand the importance of protecting soil.  Mulching is the most common method of soil protection; cover crops are, in essence, living mulch.   They help maintain a sympathetic environment for earthworms and microbes in upper soil layers.   By contrast, leaving soil exposed quickly reduces it’s quality by exposing it to weather extremes.   If you’ve noticed garden soil late on a sunny afternoon after a night of rain, the hard crust that formed isn’t a happy environment for living things!

On farms, cover crops are often used as part of a rotational planting plan, following crops that demand intensive use of soil, or in a small window between vegetable crops.  For a home gardener/ edible landscape, they are especially applicable to fallow areas of prepared soil, which will not receive immediate attention.  Once the cover crop dies back, if it’s an annual, it is left to decompose, providing mulch in the meantime.  If it is perennial or you are ready to recover that area of the garden for other purposes, the cover crop can be turned into the soil with a shovel or tiller.   The term green manure comes from the rich influx of nutrients imparted to the soil once it’s incorporated.  It’s best to give 2 weeks before replanting after cutting a cover crop.

There are so many creative ways to work with cover crops!  They are used in low or no-till growing with great results.  Quite a few cover crops provide useful harvest, such as milky oat tops and clover flowers for medicine.  As always, experiment and see how they work best in your garden.  In the Blue Ridge (and Piedmont), cover crops for the warm season include buckwheat, oats, cow peas or soybeans, while various clovers, annual rye or vetch are good cool season choices.  Each provides different services and behaves differently, so be sure to do your research.  Some are definitely self-seeding and will spread!  Extension agencies like Clemson or Cornell may be helpful and Johnny’s Seeds offers useful information online.

Buckwheat is a drought-tolerant, pollinator- supporting, edible summer cover crop. In flower, it’s pictured below

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