Plant a cover crop this fall to improve your garden’s soil

Dear Garden Coach: I took a compost class with you this summer. After that class I started finding ways to take better care of my soil (including starting my first compost pile). I also began researching ways to try to protect the soil.

I am reaching out to you because I have come across the idea of cover crops for soil health and I am not really sure what to do.

Greg MacArthur, Concord

Dear Greg: Fall is a great time for planting a cover crop, and I guarantee you will not regret taking the initiative to improve your soil! Your plants will be happy too, since adding organic material to a garden in the form of compost, mulch or cover crop builds humus. Humus is created as these materials breakdown, creating a soil that retains moisture and organisms who fertilize and aerate the soil.

Additionally, putting something on top of the soil for winter helps reduce soil erosion and the encroachment of weeds. While mulching or using leaves to cover your beds works for keeping weeds down, a cover crop, often referred to as green manure, has the additional benefits of building soil fertility, improving water retention, breaking up heavy soils, but more importantly extracting beneficial nutrients for plants while adding nitrogen to the soil.

Cover crops are grains, grasses and legumes. As the roots penetrate into the subsoil they pull minerals and nutrients which concentrate in the leaves and stems of the cover crop. These nutrients are returned to the garden in the form of compost. For example, buckwheat, a grain, keep the weeds away while accumulating phosphorus in its stems and leaves; phosphorus is an important nutrient in the overall health of plants. Crimson flax, oats and radish and have deep root systems and break up heavy clay soils.

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Plants in the legume family like fava beans, peas and fenugreek fix nitrogen to the soil. This happens when specialized strains of bacteria called rhizobia infect the roots and causes a nodule to form on the root around the bacteria, which protects the bacteria. The bacteria convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into usable nutrients for the plant.

In spring there are a few options for using your cover crop: harvest the greens before flowering and add directly to your compost pile, cut the plants back and allow to compost in place or before harvesting, allow them to produce nectar-rich flowers for spring pollinators and beneficial insects. Some crops, like fava beans, produce seeds that are edible.

If you harvest the greens …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Lifestyle


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