Cover Crops by Melissa Oakes.
When our vegetable gardens are finished for the season it’s easy to think about just letting our garden sit until it’s time for the next planting season. We’re tired and ready to walk away and forget that it’s during that time when its most important to invest in our soil health. Planting a cover crop is a great way to feed your soil, prevent topsoil loss, reduce compaction and suppress perennial and annual weed growth.
Building healthy soil should always be the aim of good gardening practices. It’s the key to growing plants that are strong and yield more. Since Texas soils contain less than 1 percent organic matter, a long term plan is needed to maintain healthy soil. Our high soil temperatures can speed up the decomposition process, thus making it a challenge to keep the levels high enough. Cover crops are a great way to do this and are known as “green manure” which add organic matter back into the soil, aerate it and help with moisture control. A few examples for cover crops are crimson clover and vetch in winter and cowpea and sorghum in the summer for nitrogen fixing will give the best benefit to your soil and encourage microbe growth. Cover crops used in this were planted for the purpose of plowing into the soil while still green and prior to harvest maturity. This is especially helpful in vegetable garden production.
Topsoil loss can be a problem if left unchecked. Heavy rains wash open unprotected soil into our storm drains and ditches. Cover crops help to hold the soil in place and also decrease the impact that precipitation can have on it. We lose minerals when they are leached out through heavy rain. Cover crops can also be planted during active gardening season between plants as a live mulch to protect any exposed soil.
Soil compaction is another issue that can be a major hindrance to plant growth. Low amounts of organic matter can be the problem. Cover crops not only keep the soil broken up by their root growth, but also when they are tilled into the soil prior to the next season’s planting they add tilth to it. The aerated soil is especially helpful in allowing seeds to better germinate and produce a good root system.
Weed growth is always a problem no matter what season it is here. Weeds rob plants of nitrogen, water and other nutrients. The primary purpose of non-nitrogen producing cover crops like wheat and rye for winter and buckwheat and Sudan grass for summer is to take up space and block out light to prevent weed establishment. They provide a more sustainable way to manage weed problems, reducing herbicide dependence and costs associated with it.
For more information on cover crops and soil management contact Hunt County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension at 903-455-9885 for details about publications that are available or go to http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ for more information.