How to Use Cover Cropping to Make Your Garden Sustainable

A patchwork field of cover cropping with green and purple plants.

Build a sustainable garden by using the tried-and-true technique farmers have used for centuries: cover cropping. You don’t need to be an agriculture pro to use cover crops in the home garden, but you will notice the results when your soil is richer, healthier, and less weedy because you did.

Why Cover Cropping?

From large-scale farms to small home gardens, cover crops are an excellent way to keep soil healthy and save yourself a whole lot of work, time, and energy every spring. Plant cover crops in off seasons (during fall and winter) when your other plants aren’t growing, rather than leaving your planting areas bare. Putting cover crops in place of empty garden beds will prevent weeds from growing in your garden plot and protect the soil from erosion, so you don’t have to add four new inches of soil come spring. Less weedy and eroded soil is much better for planting when the seasons change again.

That’s not all cover crops will do for your garden. While they grow and protect the soil through the fall and winter, good cover crops add more nutrients to the soil to make it richer and healthier. A cover crop can be used to balance nitrogen levels in soil, which creates a richer planting area that needs fewer fertilizer treatments in the long run. And since the soil is being used for cover crops rather than left bare, you’ll see a lot fewer mushrooms and other fungal growth during fall and winter seasons.

Which Crops Should Be Your Cover?

Start covering your garden during the off season, and you’ll have a lot more to work with when you’re ready to plant again. Choose a cover crop based on your garden needs and your personal taste because there’s no reason you can’t like the way your garden looks even in fall and winter. With a good cover crop, your garden will look pretty when your neighbors have nothing but bare dirt to see on their property.

A close-up field of clover.

Clover - Plant clover in the garden if you want to boost the nitrogen level in your soil. After you use clover as a cover crop, you can reduce the amount of nitrogen-enriched fertilizer you use for your spring and summer plants. Clover plants work well at preventing erosion as well, protecting your soil from harsh fall rains. Clover plants are in the legume plant family, and other legumes function the same way when used as cover crops. That means you can use bean or pea plants as cover crops instead of clover, depending on the look you want.

A mustard plant with a sun setting in the distance.

Grasses, etc. - Use grasses and other non-legume cover crops to prevent soil erosion and weed growth. Grass cover crops will also add a great deal of organic matter to the soil, creating a rich environment for future plants. Grasses and other non-legumes use a lot of nitrogen, so these are an excellent choice if you plant a lot of nitrogen-producing crops in spring and summer and you want to rebalance your soil. Good non-legume cover crops include ryegrass, buckwheat, barley, wheat, and mustard plants.

A close-up image of plants growing.

Mix it Up - Plenty of home gardeners use both legume and non-legume cover crops to get the best of both worlds. Plant two or more different types of cover crops in your garden area to create a patchwork-like, multi-tonal effect. Cover crop mixtures look great, but they do require more maintenance and management. Depending on the cover crops you use, you may be left with varying degrees of nutrients in multiple patches of soil, which can get complicated.

The Sustainable Garden

Use cover cropping to make your garden beds look prettier and stay healthier year-round, and create a sustainable garden with rich soil. Cover crops look a lot better than bare soil, and they do a lot more for your garden besides. Even in small gardens, a little bit of cover goes a long way toward keeping your soil healthier.