Cover crops have long been used on organic vegetable farms as a way to hold soil in place, improve soil’s physical structure, and even to increase fertility. With a little planning, they can achieve all these same benefits in a vegetable garden. The only tricky part is figuring out when and where to fit them into limited garden space. Because cover crops are grown simply for the benefit of the soil and are not generally harvested or eaten, it can be difficult to make them a priority.
Luckily there are two easy niches for cover crops even in a garden full of vegetables. In Dane County we can usually count on the soil being ready to work (thawed and adequately dried) by about April 15. Some crops like onions, spinach, and broccoli are frost hardy and can be planted right away. But many popular vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash are frost sensitive and cannot be planted until late May. Working the soil in mid-April and planting a cover crop of peas and/or oats is a great way to build the soil before planting those warm-weather vegetables. Likewise, when the early-planted vegetables are done, that is a great time to plant a fall cover crop that will either die out over winter and leave a protective mulch layer on the soil (like peas and oat) or survive and put on more growth in the spring (like hairy vetch).
Regardless the species you choose, experimenting with cover crops will add diversity and beauty to your garden while improving the soil for your vegetables. Click here to learn more about which cover crops to choose for your situation and how to best plant and terminate them.
For more information about cover crops in vegetables contact: Claire Strader, Small Scale and Organic Produce Educator, at 608-224-3710 or strader.Claire@countyofdane.com.