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Choosing the best type of cover crop

Nitrogen-fixing nodulesWhen choosing cover crops, it's handy to look at broad categories to find out which one (or ones) best fit your needs.  The first distinction to consider is whether your plants are annuals (meaning they'll go to seed and die in less than a year) or perennials (meaning they will live for many years).  Perennial cover crops have a place in pastures or tilled-garden settings, but, for our purposes, you'll be better off sticking to annuals.

It's also helpful to break cover crops down into two other categories—legumes and non-legumes.  Legumes are members of the bean family, and cover crop legumes include clovers, cowpeas, field peas, vetch, and medics.  Legumes differ from most other kinds of plants because they've teamed up with soil bacteria to enable them to pull nitrogen out of the air.  As a result, legumes are able to grow in soil that hasn't been recently dosed with manure, compost, or other nitrogen fertilizers, and (when managed correctly) legume cover crops can reduce your need to apply compost to the soil.

Buckwheat going to seed

Cover Crop ebookNon-legumes include all other types of cover crops, notably grains and crucifers (the latter of which are members of the same family as cabbage and mustard).  While legumes can make their own nitrogen and act as quick fertilizers for the soil, non-legumes make more organic matter and enrich the soil longer-term.

I explain more about how to maximize the amount of organic matter you get from your cover crops in Homegrown Humus, but for now, it's worth considering why you want to grow cover crops.  Are you trying to replace the compost or manure used to fertilize your garden annually?  If so, go for legumes.  On the other hand, if you're like me and are trying to improve the quality of your garden soil, you'll want to stick to grains and crucifers.

This post is part of our Homegrown Humus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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Gosh Anna, I can't keep up with your writing, and I read pretty fast :-) I got the ebook, will read it before asking questions! But thanks for writing it, I can't wait to start throwing some seed around and improving my red clay.
Comment by De Wed Jan 23 20:57:34 2013

De --- Thanks for reading! If you get a chance to leave a review on Amazon, you'd make my day --- I don't have any reviews yet, and strangers generally won't try an unknown without reviews.

I'll look forward to hearing your questions, in part because it'll probably help me tighten up the book. :-) Always glad to hear from folks planning to plant cover crops!

Comment by anna Thu Jan 24 08:12:18 2013
Can you grow legumes and crucifers together at all?
Comment by Rhenda Thu Jan 24 20:15:49 2013
Rhenda --- I write about mixtures in more depth in the ebook (which is free today if you want to check it out). The short answer is that you can mix together anything you want, but it's best to make sure they mature at the same time and kill the same way if you don't want them to become a weed problem.
Comment by anna Fri Jan 25 08:07:50 2013