Friday, August 21, 2015

Using Cover Crops in Your Home Garden



The garden at our new (old) home has been both loved and neglected over its many years, and investing soil health has been a big part of our preparation for planting in our garden renovation and creation. I recently shared some of the DIY soil test techniques that we have been using to gauge conditions and needs, and, as promised, this is a follow-on share about using crop covers. A crop cover is a plant (or plants) which is planted primarily for managing an issue and/or improving the conditions of your garden. Crop covers (and green manures) are common in larger scale agriculture, but these is no reason why you can't adapt and adopt the same sustainable concept on a smaller scale for your home garden. Crop covers can be used for many purposes, including to:
Improve soil quality (organic matter, nitrogen)
Reduce erosion (rain, runoff, and/or wind)
Suppress weeds
Control pests and disease
Attract beneficial insects

A few common agricultural cover crops include clover, vetch, beans, peas, lentils, lupins, alfalfa, cereals, and mustard.  The right crop cover for your garden will depend on your garden's needs, your planting goals, and your growing climate/conditions. Check your local growing guides or consult a local seed stockist or nursery (who also likely stock seeds for common cover crops in your area).  Crop covers are typically direct seeded and are usually low maintenance plants, requiring little care or effort until you are ready to compost them. If you don't want your cover crop to self-seed (whether for maximum nutrient benefit or to control invasive growth), you can trim it (or even mow it...I did!) before flowering or setting to seed.  When you are ready to incorporate the plants back into the soil as compost, you can simply turn the plants completely into your garden soil. Ideally this should be around a month (or more) before you intend to plant the area.  Alternatively, if you're under planting, you might want to just let nature take it's course and allow your crop cover to self-sow and naturalise. 


Our primary crop cover objectives were to improve soil quality, control dust, and support beneficial insects. Because of our urban garden situation and respect for the neighbours, looking good was a plus as well! With our cat and dogs, it had to be both safe (puppy is a nibbler...) and robust.  For our fence/retaining wall garden border (a significant problem area), we used a non-invasive variety of Lupin. Lupins are a leguminous crop cover, adding nitrogen and accumulating phosphorous.  Their long taproot helps to loosen and aerate the soil, which was great in our little patch of trouble.  They were tolerant of the difficult growing conditions, attractive enough for border planting, the location was out of bounds for our pets (lupin leaves and seeds can be toxic to pets) and the flowers draw pollinators and beneficial insects.  If I was replanting the area (as I may in the future), I would probably include something like Mustard Seed for a mixed crop cover planting.

We used Sweet Alyssum on bare soil throughout all of the old garden beds while we renovated and planned future more permanent plantings.  It is a fast-growing, low (20-30cm) pretty white flowered plant. It can be seeded densely to protect soil and suppress weeds, and is great for drawing in beneficial insects.  It isn't the best option for adding nutrients, but it was right for us. It looked great in the beds (so much better than dusty hydrophobic dirt!) and was pet-safe, both key considerations for our primary garden area.  Because it's relatively pretty and a nice little garden plant (unlike many  more beneficial crop covers), I was also ok with the likelihood that we'd have some legacy self-seeded alyssum popping up around the beds into the future.


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