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What Are Cover Crops And Should You Plant Them

blog fall herbs winter garden Sep 26, 2023


You have probably seen or heard the buzz around cover crops if you have ever gardened through a cold season.  Every year as the leaves begin to fall you can find farmers and even home gardeners breaking out the clover, rye, and buckwheat seeds.  So what is a cover crop?  Why do so many people plant them?  And should you start acquiring seed for planting your garden this winter?  Let's see if I can shed some light on this for you and help you determine if you need to plant a cover crop for winter. (Hint:  You don't!)



Defining A Cover Crop

Let's start by gaining an understanding of exactly what a cover crop is.  Cover crops are plants that are planted to cover the soil rather than to be harvested. They reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility and soil quality, help retain moisture, suppress weeds, and keep pests and diseases at bay, while improving biodiversity and wildlife.


Sounds pretty amazing right??  If I didn't know better, I might mistake this for a properly planted, organic, well mulched garden bed! That is what is so interesting about a cover crop.  It is simply a substitution for a garden for a season.  So in other words.  If you aren't going to plant a garden this season, you would instead plant a cover crop.


Why Plant A Cover Crop

For some gardeners, cover crops are necessary because to leave a garden empty with bare soil exposed is to just ask for problems in the coming season.  A soil that is left exposed and a garden that is left empty is a one way ticket to increased weeds, pests, and disease, not to mention the back breaking work you are signing up for before ever being able to plant a thing in a future season.  And the damage that is done to a soil ecosystem when the garden is barren is sometimes not reversible. You can see the need for something to be growing, right?


Why Not Just Plant A Garden

The question that always comes to my mind when thinking about cover crops is, Why wouldn't you just plant a garden? I have seen many gardeners online suggest lots of different varieties of grasses, legumes, root vegetables, and leafy greens to mix and grow together as a cover crop for winter, and I am impressed with the intensive planting methods and diversity that some include in a cover crop rotation for winter.  But to go through all of that effort and planning to never harvest it, doesn't seem very productive to me.  I don't know about you, but I want to pick what I plant.


When you start talking about incorporating different plants and strategically planting them for maximum benefits to the soil, Im tuned in. But where the idea of cover crops loses me is that you won't harvest them.  I understand that in northern climates where the temperatures throughout winter are severe there may be benefit to a cover crop over a harvestable one. But in the south, in our zone 9 gardens, there is never a need for a cover crop. Instead we grow gardens that we can harvest from 52 weeks a year.  Winter is no exception.  So instead of planting a cover crop this cold season, how about just planting a cool season garden?   


Plant A Cover Crop That You Can Harvest

If you are looking for an easy winter garden, a cover crop might be just what you are looking for. But why plant a crop that you can't harvest, when you can plant one that you can.  Why plant clover when you can plant mustard greens?  Mustard greens are sometimes used as a cover crop and can be harvested as leaves mature giving you a great abundance of this nutrient packed leafy green this winter.  

Another great cover crop option that you can actually harvest is lettuce. With so many amazing varieties of lettuce to choose from there is no reason to not grow as much lettuce as possible.  I will show you how to grow all the lettuce in my FREE class "Salad School."  You can join this class HERE. 


Disadvantages To A Cover Crop

When you are tempted to just toss out a bunch of clover seeds, remember that a winter garden can be harvested all season in zone 9.  There are also a few other disadvantages to a cover crop. First, cover crops are heavy rooted. This makes them difficult to remove at the end of the cold season. Also, be very careful with what cover crops you choose to plant.  Many times they will come back year after year and seem to always linger.  Again, it is much more beneficial to plant a winter garden in our climate. So just do that!!


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