Cover Crops

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What are you growing this winter? Your best bet? Grow soil. Your spring flowers, summer and fall fruits and vegetables will all be better off if you put your efforts into growing your soil this season. Simply put: Keep your soil covered for success.

Cover crops aid in the ongoing battle against the unfortunate garden conditions that challenge many of us. Here in Lee County we can have a variety of these. Sloping garden sites? Check. Thin top soil? Check. Heavy clay subsoil? Check. Lack of rainfall, followed by deluge? Check. Damages from severe weather, such as we’ve seen with Hurricane Mathew harm exposed soil in a number of ways. From sun baked clay soil turning into veritable bricks, to canyons after a severe heavy rain that seem to rival Utah’s Bryce Canyon, we have it all.

Cover Crops help lessen the severity of a host of other problems too. Legumes are good for adding nitrogen, grains and grasses help with weed suppression. Mustard and rapeseed can reduce soil-borne diseases and some varieties can reduce nematode populations depending on how and when they get incorporated. A dense cover of living plants also shade the soil and prevent the surface from drying out and crusting. Foliage can break the impact of a battering rain, protecting the soil from compaction and erosion.

Cover crops also provide a home for soil organisms, like earthworms, that break down the soil to make nutrients available again. They also build the soil by adding back in organic matter, acting as both fertilizer and soil conditioners. Decomposing roots provide air spaces in the soil that improve the texture enabling nutrient and water retention.

Green manure cover crops such as mustard, kale, radishes, peas and clover are easily chopped up and turned over into compost. These cover crops are welcome glimpses of green throughout the winter, thriving thru spring until turned over in March to prepare for planting April’s spring gardens.

Remember that turned over cover crops need time to break down before anything else can be planted. This breakdown is more related to condition triggers like weather, soil temperature, and the biological activity in the soil than the actual dates on the calendar.

When deciding which cover crop is best for you consider the actual plant’s growth rate; how much organic material you’ll get in return; root depth and structure for breaking up soil; pollinator suitability; natural mineral content and nitrogen-fixing capacity.

If you do try growing your soil with cover crops, seasonality makes sense. For spring’s cool soils try peas, fava beans, annual ryegrass, oats and/or mustard. For summer planting buckwheat, soybeans and other legumes like cowpeas work in a large range of soils, fix nitrogen and with a dense planting can outcompete weeds. Crimson clover is a winter hardy cover crop that fixes nitrogen and has a strong root system that helps with erosion control.

For more details on the qualities of specific cover crop plants for specific characteristics take a look at

Minda Daughtry is horticulture agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.