Cover Crop Basics

Plant “green manure” this fall, and your garden will be more productive and healthier next season.

By Erika Jensen


Buckwheat makes an excellent cover cropCover crops just might be the hardest-working plants you’ll ever grow. Cover crops (also called green manure) suppress weeds, build productive soil, and help control pests and diseases. Plus, cover crops are easy to plant and require only basic care to thrive. And they grow well in nearly every part of the country.

Get started!
Maybe you already know about the benefits of cover crops but think they’re just for farmers and other large-scale growers. Think again. Cover crops are well suited to all gardens, whether they’re big or small. Here’s a step-by-step guide to reaping the rewards of cover crops in your garden.

Step 1: Planting.
If you’ve ever reseeded a bare patch in your lawn, rest assured you can plant a cover crop. Work up the soil gently with a garden rake, broadcast seed over the soil, and then rake it in. Raking establishes good soil-to-seed contact and protects the seed from birds. "Birds sometimes eat the seeds if they are too close to the surface," says Nancy Creamer, Ph.D., director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University. If you decide to plant cover crops in the fall, be sure to allow them plenty of time to become established. "This means planting them 4 weeks before killing frosts. The one exception is cereal rye, which can be planted right up to a frost," says Marianne Sarrantonio, Ph.D., associate professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine.

Step 2: Care.
Cover crops are low-maintenance compared to most crops, but they still need some care. Mowing keeps large cover crops manageable, and sorghum-sudangrass actually increases its root growth if mowed once or twice. White Dutch clover planted in garden pathways needs to be mowed regularly to keep it from competing with vegetables and flowers. Be sure to water cover crops during times of drought.