Elissa BunnMaster Gardener of El Dorado County

Cover crops are a great resource for home gardeners. They are essentially a ground cover for an area in the garden that might otherwise be bare for a season. They can be used in both cool and warm seasons. Gardeners plant cool-season cover crops ranging from legumes (peas, beans, clover, vetch, etc.) to grasses (rye, barley, triticale, etc.) for a variety of purposes.

All cover crops should be sown, sprouted and cut down before any flowering or seeding begins. You want to get maximum greenery instead of letting the plants put their energy into flowering and seeding. The cut-down plants can be tilled into the soil as food for decomposer organisms, which break down and release the plants nutrients into the soil, or they can be shredded and left on the top of soil if you prefer the no-till approach. Either way, you are helping improve the health of your soil and health of microorganisms in that soil.

Now for more specifics on different kinds of cover crops.

Legumes help fix nitrogen in soil through a symbiotic relationship with a bacterium. When the bacteria attach to the legume roots, the contact creates small bubble-like nodules that make a ready-to-use form of nitrogen. In a garden bed that has had heavy nitrogen feeder crops like tomatoes, squash, broccoli or lettuce, a legume cover crop could be seeded and cut down to help restore nitrogen for the next growing season.

Grasses help aerate and perforate dense, poorly draining soils. Grasses have deep, finger-like roots that reach into the soil and break up hard soils like the clay found in El Dorado County. These root systems can improve drainage, especially after the surface grasses are cut and tilled in.

Warm-season cover crops are used less in our climate because we love our tomatoes and peppers and want plenty of garden space for them. Nonetheless, some warm-season cover crops include the legume cow peas and the not-a-grass buckwheat. Both have deep roots and great green foliage. The same rule of cutting them down before flowering applies to warm-season cover crops.

Less common cover crops to break up hard soil are daikon radishes, mustard and other tap root plants. These plants can usually be seeded for cool or warm season; just make sure to read your seed information.

When planting your cover crop seed, warm or cool season, make sure you protect it from bird predation using mulch, a floating row cover or anything in between. Birds just love succulent sprouts when the seasons are changing. Another thing to consider is timing wait too long to plant in the fall and your cover crop will be fighting cold temps while germinating; plant too early and lack of rainfall might create the need to irrigate.

Which cover crop will be best for your situation? Use the information above, do some research and try it out. Mix and match or buy a pre-mixed seed; there are many options. We often get discouraged and quit after one try but, remember, this is gardening. There are so many variables. Dont give up after a disappointing result. After three years I have finally figured out the right cover crop for my home garden. Keep experimenting and you will find the best cover crop for your garden too.

Due to the pandemic, Master Gardener events will for the foreseeable future continue to be limited. Master Gardeners currently have no classes scheduled until next year. Keep checking the calendar of events for classes at mgeldorado.ucanr.edu/Public_Education_Classes/?calendar=yes&g=56698 to see what will be offered in the future. Find recorded classes on many gardening topics at ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners/Public_Education_Classes/Handouts_-_Presentations/.

Have a gardening question? Master Gardeners are working hard remotely and can still answer questions. Leave a message on the office telephone (530) 621-5512 or use the Ask a Master Gardener option at mgeldorado.ucanr.edu. Master Gardeners are also on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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See original here:
Grow For It! The benefits of cover crops - Mountain Democrat

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