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It’s been a really good growing season this year. Since deciding not plant a fall crop, due to rebuilding beds soon, I’ve been researching how to use cover crops in raised beds. There is a lot of confusing information available.
I’m guilty, if I don’t understand something, I end up doing nothing at all. Does this happen to you as well?
This is actually what I did my first 2 years of gardening and my vegetable yields showed it. Confused, so my raised bed soil was exposed to the elements and my crops sure showed it.
If you are confused about how to use cover crops in raised beds, then I’m going to clear up some of the madness. It took me a while to even realize cover crops could be used in home vegetable gardens much less raised beds.
I thought they were for the large agriculture farmers only. But they are not so lets get started.
How to Use Cover Crops in Raised Beds
Before we begin, please know that I keep referring to raised beds since this how I garden. Cover Crops can be grown in any home garden no matter how large or small.
The important thing is you learn how to use them and how your garden will benefit from them.
What is a Cover Crop?
There are some really deep explanations available for the question – what is a cover crop? Lots of confusing ones in fact.
Fortunately, I came across this one, and it was like what I call a “light bulb” moment – it just made sense.
The Agriculture Dept of the University of Tennessee defines a cover crop “as a living ground cover that is planted to protect the soil…it may be planted into or after a main crop and killed before the next crop is planted.”
Finally, something I understood.
What is the Purpose of a Cover Crop?
Cover crops act as a blanket to protect the soil from extreme temperatures, winds, pounding rains and snow. Cover crops are used to improve soil.
When soil is left exposed, it’s an invitation for weeds and disaster. The main purpose of a cover crop is to prevent soil erosion.
When soil is allowed to erode, it reduces it’s ability to produce and therefore crop yields are drastically reduced. Sometimes, soil erosion is irreparable.
Other Advantages of Cover Cropping
Though the main purpose is to reduce soil erosion, cover cropping has additional advantages to raised beds and home gardens.
- Adds Organic Structure & Soil Structure to your garden – When cover crops are broken down by microorganisms in the soil, they form tiny clumps that helps to bind soil particles together called aggregates. These “clumps” create space in your garden soil that helps to store air and water. So essentially when you water your garden, the water doesn’t run off the top. The clumps allow the water to infiltrate into the soil.
- Reduces Nematodes – nematodes are a worm fungus that attacks the roots of plants causing them to be unhealthy and often die. Nematodes are less likely to survive in healthy soils.
- Suppresses Diseases – Cover crops absorb splashes from rain and aides in the prevention of soil splash onto plants. This helps to control diseases such as white fleck on pumpkins and septoria leaf spot on tomatoes. For a better understanding of disease control SARE has this Soil Biology Cover Crop Disease Suppression article available.
- Allows for aeration -Loosens subsoil which aides plants in having a healthier root system
- Nutrient Enrichment – Cover crops add nitrogen (N) to the soil. In addition to recycling phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur in the soil. As it breaks down the nutrients in released aiding in the reduced need for additional fertilizers.
- Weed Reduction – Weeds flourish in bare soil. Keeping a cover crop on the soil when it is not planted with a cash crop, prevents weed establishment.
- Feeds Pollinators – When cover crops are allowed to flower, pollinators are able to feed from the blooms.
What Cover Crop is Best for Your Raised Beds?
There are several different cover crops to choose from for raised beds or any size home garden. Making the decision doesn’t need to be too confusing either. The first thing to decide is depends on the time of year you are planting since there are both warm season and cool season cover crops.
To find a great list of all seasons cover crops take a look at the SARE Nationwide Website here.
To choose what cover crop is your raised for your raised beds depends on a few different things.
- What specifically are you using the cover crop for? To add organic matter, increase nitrogen, weed control and such. What do you want to accomplish with it?
- What is the time frame that you need to use the crop? How long will it have to grow? – Some cover crops grow faster than others.
- What will the temperatures be when the crop is growing? – Can it withstand the seasonal temperature? Will you need to kill it in the spring if it is a winter crop or will it die by itself and it acts as a cover only over the winter?
These are all questions that you will need to decide. A very helpful chart I found that works for me can be found here from the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
What I Chose to Use
Last fall after some research and deciding on what I was wanting to accomplish with my cover crop, I chose to go with an organic Barley that would be killed in the winter and then lay dormant until spring.
I must say, it was gorgeous and green for weeks. A couple neighbors even stopped by to take a look to see what I was growing – it was gorgeous. I can look out my kitchen window and see my raised beds. It was a warm feeling to see the lush green crop in mid November and most of December.
Barley planted as a cover crop in raised bedsBut it ended abruptly one night – temperatures got below 17 degrees and the barley was killed. The next morning when looked out and it was all laid over and brown. Not a pretty site, but I knew this was to happen. Hence, “killed in the winter.”
For the rest of the winter until mid-March, when I looked out I saw this brown carpet all laid over. When spring rolled around, I turned it under using a broad fork, and my garden yields tripled this year. For instance I planted 30 Roma tomato plants and harvested 10.5 bushels of tomatoes this season. Oh my!
By the way, a full list of my favorite garden tools that I have found helpful for working in raised beds can be found in this article 15 Garden Tools You Will Want for Gardening.
What are some examples of Cover Crops?
When doing my research, I found it easier to make a chart for various cover crops I was considering and how they need to be removed in the spring. Here’s a great place to see how soon can you do your spring planting. So you will know when you need to remove your cover crop.
Here are the crops I considered to be the best cover crops for my raised beds. All of these are for weed control and I’ve listed from early spring crops to winter crops. This will hopefully help you when choosing your cover crop.
I chose to plant Barley as cover crop in the fall, so it would be killed by cold temperatures and act as a soil cover all winter. Doing this meant that I would have to be concerned about it going to seed in the spring. Nor would I have to clip it down, it would be laying over already dead in the spring.