How to Get Microbes Working for You! Cover Crops:
A Regenerative Tool for Your Garden’s Soil
Cover crops are extremely important to regenerative growing. Often they are discussed as tools for large scale agricultural operations yet you can easily use cover crops, in a backyard or on a balcony, when you understand their purpose.
Cover crops are plants grown to protect and stimulate life in the soil; rather than cash crops grown for profit or subsistence crops grown for eating. Any plant can be a cover crop if it’s fulfilling this purpose of protecting the health of the soil.
Using cover crops for urban growers is easier than you think! Mother Nature has provided us this tool as one way to be better gardeners by working in tandem with natural ecosystem services. Read on for six important functions of cover crops and how to use them to help your garden thrive during and after the growing season.
- Fill empty spaces with roots
Cover crops provide a plethora of roots in the soil that will constantly drip sugars out to feed the soil’s microbial population. A plant releases carbohydrates (sugar) into the soil to communicate with the healthy soil microbes and demand specific nutrients based on their needs. These carbohydrate signals stimulate microbial life to manufacture on-demand nutrients for the plant, who provide the sugars in exchange for these valuable nutrients.
By using cover crops to fill in bare spaces in your garden, you can make sure a constant supply of sugars are being delivered to the microbial population underground. This will keep them happy, well fed, energized and ready to work for your plants as soon as they are needed.
An easy option for cover crops in the spring and fall is to plant radishes into any empty spaces. These plants germinate and grow leafy stalks very quickly, and happily squish in wherever they are placed.
- Protect soil from the elements
Remember that blog where we talked about Mother Nature not wanting to be naked? Using cover crops is another example of a natural way to protect the soil - and all the microbes that live in it - from the damaging effects of the elements.
Select cover crops with large leaves to protect more area with fewer plants. Rain will hit the leaf to soften the impact on the soil below, and wind will be deterred from blowing off the top layers of rich humus.
Squash plants like zucchinis and winter squashes take a while to start growing, but their large leaves provide good cover, and their tendrils will fill out any empty space in your growing plot.
- Break up compacted soil
Some cover crops provide additional specialty benefits to soil health over and beyond the first two mentioned here. One example is using tillage radish as a cover crop.
Tillage radishes, (which can be eaten but are apparently not very tasty), grow an extremely long and powerful tap root down deep into the soil. As the radish grows, its root will dig down dozens of feet into the soil and break through hard compacted layers of soil, so that the next crop grown in that space will have a much easier time growing deep roots.
- Increase nitrogen in the soil
Nitrogen plays a key role in the growth of plants. Plants that lack nitrogen become yellowed, produce smaller fruits and flowers, and don’t grow as tall. While there is no shortage of nitrogen in the atmosphere, it must be converted to nitrate in the soil before it is accessible to plants.
Cover crop peas to the rescue! One of the easiest plants to use as a cover crop to fix nitrogen in the soil are regular old peas. Plant these alongside heavy-feeding crops like corn. Other legumes such as alfalfa, clover, beans, lentils and peanuts can also help increase nitrogen levels in soil.
- Add organic matter to soil
Lastly, cover crops can serve as a live mulch and source of organic matter to feed soil microbes, especially through the winter. The more diverse and longer you maintain a cover crop, the more it helps restore and maintain the health of the soil.
Grow a cover crop that creates large biomass above the soil, such as a broccoli plant. In the fall, cut down its foliage and lay it on the soil, and if possible lay down additional mulch on top such as straw, dried leaves or Wood Chips. By spring this material will have been converted into beautiful rich earth for your next growing season.
- Other benefits
The benefits of cover crops are almost endless. Cover crops, such as sunflowers, can be used to attract pollinators to your garden, while planting something like oats, will help to suppress weed growth. Keep in mind that some cover crops have to be mowed down or tilled under at the end of their growing season, so be sure to do your homework before making a choice. Whatever your growing concern, there is likely a cover crop that can be used to make your work as a grower easier!
Grow Cover Crops All Year Long
Even when your garden isn’t producing, Mother Nature has all the solutions. We are only just beginning to learn how to use her tools for regenerative agriculture. Incorporating cover crops is an important way to ensure that the microbes in Jocelyn’s Soil Booster Worm Manure can do their work in the soil keeping plants well fed and thriving.