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8 Cover crop benefits that make them a game-changer

Cover crops

So up until recently, as a micro homesteader, the concept of cover crops was not something I thought about or used in my garden. So it also stands to reason that I had no idea of the many cover crop benefits that I was missing out on. And I didn’t, until recently, when I started my quest to build healthy soil. The more I read, the more I came across the important role that cover crops play in soil health. This made me want to look into how I could incorporate them into my micro homestead to help increase my food production and ultimately the quality of my soil.

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I am not implying that cover crops are a silver bullet, or that they are perfect for every situation. But as my ultimate goal is to one day have acres of land to manage. I want to have the art of healthy soil well under my belt before that time. So cover crops factor into that equation as one of the key elements! Another part of the puzzle is vermicomposting, which I will be starting next year. Plus all the things I don’t even know that I need to know yet! In any case, I will share them with you guys as I figure them out.

The cover crop that I am choosing to go with is crimson clover or Italian clover. Science types would refer to is as Trifolium incarnatum. I’m getting mine from my go-to heirloom seed store Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. If you want to know about why I grow heirloom seeds (and only heirloom seeds), you can check out my post on 5 Reasons you need to grow heirloom seeds. So anyway, back to the crimson clover at hand. So why did I choose this specific cover crop? Well to start with it’s red and red is a damn fine colour in my books. On a more serious note, red is a colour that really tends to attract pollinators. Am I expecting it to work as well as my sunflowers? Hell no! I doubt anything could, but anything that brings pollinators to my yard is a win in my books.

One of my sunflowers

Some cover crops for micro homesteaders

  • Crimson clover
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Winter rye
  • Australian winter pea

#1 – Reduce erosion

OK so not sure why I started with this at number 1…it’s probably the least relevant to a micro homestead. But in the context of homesteading on a larger scale, it’s vital. So much topsoil is lost to erosion every year. So with the grand scheme of things in mind let’s look at how cover crops prevent erosion.

When it rains, the drops actually hit the ground with some force that can cause unprotected soil to be displaced. So the mere presence of cover crops helps to dampen the force of the falling raindrop. Additionally, the presence of the active root structures helps to hold onto the soil aiding in the prevention of erosion. The growth above ground can also help to prevent erosion due to wind, due to a reduction in soil movement. This is additionally important as it helps to retain soil nutrients by preventing them from being lost as part of the soil runoff.

Healthy soil

#2 – Improve soil quality/structure

Soil structure may also be something you haven’t considered before. People always talk about needing GOOD soil but rarely mention the structures within the soil that are crucial to ACTUALLY having truly good soil. This is another reason I am switching to no-dig gardening but more on that in another post.

So the second of the eight cover crop benefits I want to touch upon is how they help to increase soil organic matter. They do this by helping to create additional biomass to support the billions of fungi and microbes that live within it. Soil is alive, or at least healthy soil is, full of life and the complex structures that exist within it. Paired with no-dig or no-till gardening the soil structure is maintained and enhanced year over year, leading to an increase in soil fertility.

#3 – Reduce weeds

Number three on my list of cover crop benefits is their ability to help reduce weeds. When planted thickly they are able to smother out any pesky weeds. That way when they are turned into or covered over you have a beautiful and healthy canvas where you can plant your seedlings. No-dig gardening is said to reduce weeds anyway, so I am hoping that by pairing it with the use of cover crops, the weeds will be a thing of the past for the most part.

I should point out that NOTHING is a silver bullet when it comes to weed control. I mean those little buggers are some of the most determined things on the planet! But a nice thick cover crop can definitely reduce the amount as well as the size of the weeds to do manage to establish themselves.

But wait there’s more! Ha! That felt like an infomercial, but in this case, it is true! Another benefit of crimson clover (as well as hairy vetch and rye to name a few) is their ability to also prevent weeds thanks to a process known as allelopathy. So what is allelopathy? Basically, it is the ability of certain plants that contain water-soluble allopathic substances to suppress the growth of other plants. In this case, we are using it to stop the growth of weeds. It is important that I point out that the highest allopathic effect occurs as the crimson clover is decomposing. I can hear you asking, “But, won’t that stop our seedlings from growing?” The answer is yes and no.

The allopathic effect works to inhibit germination, so if you are direct sowing into the raised beds then yes, using this method could inhibit your seeds from germinating. I typically plant seedlings that I have started myself and hardened off. So I am not anticipating any negative effects, but as with everything gardening related it is a learning experience so I may end up eating my words! That said I most likely plant anything that needs to be direct-sown into the bed that had the fall garden. See it all works out 🙂

Crimson clover as a cover crop

#4 – Increase nutrient availability

Another cover crop benefit is their ability to increase the number of nutrients that are present in the soil they inhabit. How? Well, especially in the case of legumes like crimson clover, they help to fix the nitrogen present in the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil. With the help of Rhizobia bacteria present in root nodules, they convert this atmospheric nitrogen into a plant-available source of nitrogen.

Cover crops are also known to improve soil nutrient cycling. The sugars that they release via their roots are a source of food for the living things present in the soil. They have also been associated with improvements in the earthworm populations in the soil. Additionally, if they are harvested and then tilled in they add nutrients to the soil as they decompose. If you are practising no-till/no-dig gardening as I am, then you can cut them at the soil surface and lay the tops down and cover them with compost.

#5 – Increase moisture retention

Number five on the list of cover crop benefits is tied to #2 – Improve soil quality/structure. Why? Well when you have soil soil structures it essentially becomes the infrastructure to support the increased water infiltration into the soil layers. All those roots and biomass draw in the moisture rather than just allowing it to be lost. Additionally, soil that is alive isn’t compact like dead soil so it allows for the water to be absorbed.

The soil structures also increase the holding capacity of the soils and prevent the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus which could otherwise find their way into vulnerable waterways.

Butterfly on sunflower

#6 – Control pests & attract beneficial insects

Another of the cover crop benefits that come from plants that bloom, such as crimson clover and buckwheat is that they provide food for bees and attract beneficial insects to your yard. Pollinators are a huge part of having a successful harvest, plus if you are lucky enough to be able to have beehives then just think of the double benefits of building the quality of your soil and at the same time providing the building blocks of delicious and nutrient-dense honey!

Not only do they attract pollinators to your yard, but they can also function as a trap crop to keep pests busy and away from your food crop. They can also help to control pests by attracting beneficial insects and natural predators. Restoring a more natural ecosystem helps to bring things back into balance. One of my goals when I finally get all my acres and start my full-blown homestead is to run it using biodiverse farming practices. When nature is in balance things just work better.

Anything that can work double duty in my garden is something that I can get behind. Such a huge part of being a micro homesteader is making the most of what you have. Work smart not hard takes on a whole new meaning when you are trying to grow as much food as possible in a small space!

#7 – Awesome green manure

Um, what? You probably haven’t heard of green manure, I mean I hadn’t until I started researching cover crops either. So what the heck is green manure? The term green manure refers to crops that are intentionally grown to be uprooted when they are still green and left in the soil where they wither and function as mulch and/or soil amendment. It is often associated with sustainable and organic farming. This is the 7th in my list of cover crop benefits, but this one alone is enough of a reason for me to add them to my micro homestead. I mean it is such a simple way to help to improve my soil, I just wish I had looked into this sooner so that I could have incorporated them this year!

Cover crops are typically planted as a winter annual and need to be planted in the early fall so that they have enough time to get and get established. I am aiming to plant my crimson clover by about mid-September, so I won’t be able to plant it in all my beds.

Why? Well, as I always plant a fall garden, I will still have crops growing which won’t be harvested until around October/November. Once the crimson clover has flowered it can be turned under and it decomposes quite quickly. As I am committing to no-dig gardening, rather than digging it into the soil I plan to add compost on top. So I will have to plan my garden out well so that I end up with only one bed with the fall garden in it. That will mean I can plant the crimson clover in all the other raised beds. I will just have to make sure that the following year the fall garden ends up in another bed so that I can eventually plant the crimson clover in all the beds as I cycle through them over the years.

#8 – It can be harvested as hay

I read this and I was like clover can be hay? So I asked The Hubby as he knows things like this as he used to work on a dairy farm back in his younger days. He told me that different plants can be used as hay, as long as they can be eaten by farm animals. I made my most skeptical of faces and proceeded to double-check with Google and damn it the man was right! Now in this respect, not all cover crops are created equal and this may not be relevant if you have a small micro homestead with no livestock.

If you are lucky enough to have some livestock, be it rabbits or perhaps a goat or two then this could well come in handy. So while most cover crops can be harvested as hay, there are certain ones that are better suited to this purpose. Top among these are rye, oats and wheat.

So there you have it 8 game-changing cover crop benefits. I hope that by now you are considering including cover crops in your micro homestead. As I mentioned, part of micro homesteading is honing your skills on a small scale so that you can later apply them with finesse on a large scale when you get those acres you dream of.

Have you used cover crops before on your micro homestead?