Skip to main content

Why and when you should plant a cover crop in your garden this fall

Soil nutrition is a big deal for any gardener, but there’s no one size fits all method for keeping your soil healthy. You can add fertilizers, additives, and compost, but those don’t always work well enough. If your soil seems to be flagging and you’ve exhausted all your options, or are just interested in trying something new, then you may want to plant a cover crop. Not sure where to start? Don’t worry, we’re here to help! Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about planting a cover crop.

What is a cover crop?

A cover crop, in short, is a plant that’s grown primarily for its benefits to the soil rather than for its appearance or for eating. Some cover crops are also edible or attractive, but that isn’t their main function. Cover crops are grown instead of typical garden plants, essentially to give your soil a break and help it recover.

Cover crops provide a few different benefits for gardens. They help the soil recover nutrients, especially nitrogen. They also prevent soil loss that might occur in a garden if it was left bare and help keep weeds from taking over.

When should you plant a cover crop?

For most gardens, a cover crop in the spring will do the most good. However, there isn’t really a wrong time to grow a cover crop. You want to take into account the cover crop you’re growing, as well as your climate. For example, if you live in an area with harsh winters, growing a cover crop in winter is likely not going to go well. In general, the best time to plant a cover crop is before you grow your usual garden plants. For example, if you typically grow a fall vegetable garden, but don’t grow much during the summer, then a summer cover crop may be right for you. If you start your garden in early spring, then a fall cover crop is a good choice.

In terms of when, in the grand scheme of things, you should plant a cover crop, it depends a lot on your soil quality and how much planting has been done there before. If your garden soil is rich and has had only moderate planting, then you probably don’t need a cover crop. On the other hand, if your soil is poor, has been heavily planted, or has never been worked before, then a cover crop can do a lot of good for you. Additionally, if your soil is fine but you don’t have the time or energy to plant a full garden as you normally would, then you may benefit from a low-maintenance cover crop.

A patch of clovers

What are the best cover crops?

There are plenty of cover crops to choose from, depending on what you’re looking for and when you plan on planting. Many of the most popular cover crops are in the legume family, because they fix nitrogen. This means they take nitrogen from the air and add it back to the soil. This makes them a great choice if you’re looking for a cover crop to improve your soil. The legume family includes beans, peas, and clover.

In general, good cover crops grow quickly and are low maintenance.

  • Warm weather cover crops
    • Beans
    • Clover
    • Buckwheat
  • Cold weather cover crops
    • Ryegrass
    • Oats

All of these plants do best in full sun to partial shade. Keep the ground moist while they’re seeds and young sprouts. Afterwards, simply water them when the soil dries. Clear out any old vegetation in your garden before planting your cover crop, but don’t worry if you can’t get everything. Cover crops grow thickly, which helps get rids of weeds.

A patch of young green oats

What do you do with your cover crop once you’re done?

If you’ve planted an edible cover crop, then you can harvest and eat your cover crop. Clovers can be a great source of food for rabbits, so if you have a pet bunny, they may enjoy your cover crop as well. If you do harvest your cover crop, it’s important to leave the roots, especially if you planted a nitrogen fixing cover crop. This is because the nitrogen returns to the soil when the roots decompose.

Your cover crop can be composted, as well, but the easiest way to use your cover crop is to make it a green manure. This means leaving the plants as they die, and then mixing them into the soil. This adds a lot of nutrients back into the soil, so it’s a great option if you’re growing a cover crop to help your soil recover from over planting.

Cover crops may not be the most interesting or fun part of gardening, but they serve an important role. By growing a cover crop, you can improve your soil quality, which helps all your future gardens to thrive. Growing cover crops can even help a poor quality patch of dirt that seems like a wasteland flourish into a garden of beautiful blooms.

Editors' Recommendations

Cayla Leonard
Cayla Leonard is a writer from North Carolina who is passionate about plants.  She enjoys reading and writing fiction and…
Loquat trees provide flowers, fruit, and even herbal tea! Here’s what you need to know about growing these useful plants
Loquat tree care guide
Ripe loquats on a loquat tree

Sweet, juicy, and fruit fresh from your garden is a treat unlike any other. If you’ve tried growing some of the typical garden staples such as blackberries or apples and are looking for something new, then loquat trees should be your next garden addition.

Native to southern China, this tree offers beautiful flowers, tasty fruit, and even leaves that can transform into herbal tea! Interested in all this tree has to offer? Use this simple care guide to get started growing your own today.
Planting a loquat tree
Start by choosing your planting site, since you may need to take extra steps to prepare it before planting. Choose a location in full sun or partial shade with well-draining, slightly acidic soil. Adding compost, pine straw, or peat moss to your soil can help adjust the pH.

Read more
How to care for crocosmia – get stunning red and orange flowers all summer long
Caring for your own crocosmia flowers
Orange crocosmia flowers

A summer garden full of bright, vibrant flowers is a delight to behold, and there are so many colors to choose from. From sunny yellows to cheerful pinks, there are flowers in practically any color you could want. If you’re looking for orange and red flowers that really stand out, then crocosmia might be just what you need! Also called coppertips, these flowers are easy to grow and lovely to look at. Just follow these tips to grow your own.
Planting crocosmia
Begin planting your crocosmia in mid-spring, after the last chance of frost has passed. If you want to get a head start you can plant them in starter pots indoors or in a greenhouse. Then, transplant the crocosmia into your garden once the weather is warm.

Choose a planting site that's in full sun or light shade. Crocosmia does best in rich and well-draining soil. You can improve your soil before planting by adding compost or leaf mulch. The organic matter breaks down, leaving gaps in the soil for water to flow through as well as adding nutrients to the soil for your plants to use.

Read more
Ornamental grasses add texture and color to your garden – how to grow these 6 different varieties
Caring for these ornamental grasses in your yard or garden
Pink muhly grass

Although there are countless varieties of grass, so many of them look the same. It can be difficult to find grass that really stands out in your garden. That’s where ornamental grasses come in. Ornamental grasses like pink muhly grass, purple fountain grass, and switchgrass can add color and texture to your garden borders just like flowers would. Wondering which ornamental grass to choose for your garden? Here are a few of our favorites!
What makes a grass ornamental?
You may think that all grass is ornamental. After all, we grow lawns because they look nice, not because we use them for food. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong in thinking that. Ornamental grass is still grass; it’s just grass that looks different. However, ornamental grass includes grass-like plants such as sedge, as well as true grass varieties.

Ornamental grasses come in a range of appearances besides the short, green look of classic lawn grasses. Often, ornamental grasses are tall, with some growing to 15 feet tall or more. Many are colorful and patterned, and they may have an interesting flower or seed head. Since there are so many varieties, there are ornamental grasses that will fit almost any garden or yard. Many gardeners use ornamental grasses as borders, but some varieties can make great additions to container gardens or flower gardens.

Read more