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Cover Crops and Crop Rotation

Cover crops are traditionally planted on farms but can be used in gardens. A cover crop is any crop grown to cover the soil and may be incorporated into the soil later for enrichment. Planting cover crops in your garden provides multiple benefits such as controlling erosion, suppressing weeds, reducing soil compaction, increasing moisture and nutrient content of soil, improving yield potential, attracting pollinators, and providing habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife as well as food to animals.

Cover crops (grasses, legumes and forbs) recommended for seasonal cover and other conservation purposes include annual ryegrass, oilseed radish, winter cereal rye, and oats used for scavenging unused fertilizer and releasing nutrients back into the soil for the next crop to use. Good cover crops to break up compacted soils are forage radish (also known as oilseed radish) and forage turnip. Similar to commercial nitrogen (N) fertilizers, legume cover crops like crimson clover, hairy vetch and Austrian winter pea can help “grow” some of your N needs.

It has long been a common practice for farmers to vary the crops grown in each field from year to year. This same practice of rotating crops can be applied to small-scale food gardens.

Make a plan to grow certain plant families in one area of the garden this season and in a different area next season.

For crop rotation to be most effective, don’t plant an area with vegetables from the same plant family more than once every three to four years.

Rotating crops can have important production benefits such as increasing yields, improving nutrients and organic matter in the soil, and it can help disrupt the lifecycle of crop pests, reducing chemical use. Don’t forget to add a cover crop to your rotation –especially when the garden is fallow –to reduce soil erosion and improve wildlife habitat.