If you look at your farm through the lens of a relationship, we farmers are pretty demanding friends to the land. We work the land hard and require much of it—we have to eat, after all—but what do we give it in return?
Thankfully, lessons in sustainable agriculture have taught us ways to care for and nurture our food-producing farms in order to build their health and increase their vitality. Many techniques, such as integrated pest management and no-till gardening, exist so that we can protect the land from harsh agricultural practices. One way we can actually gift the earth that provides our sustenance, though, is to plant cover crops.
Cover crops are planted primarily for the purpose of increasing soil fertility and building its structure, but they provide many additional benefits, as well. If you haven’t started planting cover crops, what are you waiting for? Here are six simple reasons we think you should get started.
1. Cover cropping is easy.
As you can see in the video above, cover cropping is fairly simple. According to Jeremy Porter, a farmer with Seedleaf in Lexington, Ky., this is what you do: After the end of the harvest season, plow the ground and allow the organic matter to decompose—you were likely going to do that anyway. Then till the land to prep it for the oncoming seed. (If you’re using a no-till method, that’s OK. This article will explain what you need to do.) Mix your seed (if using multiple varieties), scatter the seed onto the garden plot, rake it in and water. That’s it! Bring a friend with you to help—it will make the process that much easier.
2. You can cover crop any size garden.
Any size plot, from a small kitchen garden to a multiple-acre market farm, will benefit from cover cropping, so don’t even try using size as an excuse.
3. Cover crops feed the soil.
Cover crops come from a number of different plant families and benefit your soil in different ways. Legumes, like clover, fix nitrogen in the soil, but all cover crops can provide organic matter that is returned back to the soil once the crop is spent. In addition to winter rye and clover, which are used in this video, a number of different types of cover crops exist, including vetch, winter peas, barley, oats and alfalfa. To find cover crops that will suit your farm and grow well in your area, Porter recommends talking to a local farmer you know and trust, whether they’re your neighbor or a knowledgeable staff person at a local seed company or gardening store.
4. And they feed your animals.
Many farmers allow their animals, including goats, chickens, sheep or cows, to stroll the garden rows and forage on cover crops, Porter says. Not only does this mean you don’t have to mow the crop, the animals’ manure will add extra fertilizer to the garden, too.
5. Cover crops prevent erosion.
While winter wind and spring precipitation can loosen exposed garden soil and cause it to drift, cover crops, especially grasses with their long root systems and taller brassicas with their broad leaves, literally hold the ground in place.
6. Cover crops are better to look at than dirt.
Let’s face it—winter is not the prettiest time of year on the farm. If you can look out over a field of winter cover crops instead of a blank slate of dirt, wouldn’t you rather do that? We thought so!