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May 24, 2018  |  Login
Cover Cropping Your Garden: Weed Prevention
By Ann Whitman and The National Gardening Association

Open ground is an open invitation for weed seeds to take root and for creeping plants to expand their territory. You can prevent and smother weeds, protect the soil from erosion, and enrich it at the same time by planting crops that you can till into the soil later. Thickly planted cover crops prevent weed seeds from sprouting and crowd out the ones that do. When the cover crop has done its job, you simply rotary till it into the soil, where it decomposes and adds organic matter.

Cover crops fall into two broad categories. Within each group, some live for a single season, and others are perennial, coming back year after year.

  • Legumes: Plants that have the ability to convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen in the soil are called legumes. These plants increase the fertility of the soil while they grow and add rich organic matter when rotary tilled under. Some of them, especially alfalfa, have deep roots that bring water and other nutrients to the surface. Legumes provide an excellent source of nectar for bees as well as habitat for numerous beneficial insects. Legumes for cover crops include several types of clover, hairy vetch, soybeans, and alfalfa.
  • Grasses and buckwheat: These cover crops grow quickly, allowing you to till under some of them just a few weeks after planting; others can remain in place for months. Either way, they add large amounts of organic matter to the soil. Buckwheat flowers are also valuable for bee nectar. Other cover crops in this group include annual rye grass, oats, winter rye, and sudan grass.

Cover crops can serve your garden needs in different ways, depending on your goals and time frame, but unlike some other weed-control measures, you do have to plan ahead when using them:

  • New garden preparation: The year before you intend to plant a vegetable, fruits, or flower garden, turn over the soil and sow a thick cover crop. Depending on the crop used and on whether you have time, turn under the first cover crop and grow another before tilling the garden for food or flowers.
  • Between gardening seasons: After you harvest the last of your vegetables and remove the crop residue from the garden, sow a cover crop for the winter. If you live in a cold-winter climate, choose a fast-growing grass and plant it at least several weeks before the ground freezes. Turn it under in the spring. In warmer climates, prevent the cover crop from going to seed. Otherwise, it may become a weed itself.
  • During the garden season: Some cover crops, especially white clover, are useful as permanent ground covers in orchards and in the aisles between permanent planting beds. Clover encourages beneficial insects and adds nitrogen to the soil while preventing noxious weeds.


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