Gardening Tips for Seedy Characters: Week 25

What to do this week

Cover crops are garden plants that you don’t plant to eat. They cover up garden space that doesn’t have an immediate planned use. Why, you ask? They are planted as a way of stabilizing soil and building organic matter, are useful for weed control and can even help break pest cycles. If you are a farmer like me, you might cut them and feed them to your chickens or cows as an added benefit, but they are also useful for the backyard gardener.

Let’s talk about weeds first. If you leave ground bare, nature will send weeds to populate it. If you put something there, nature will often leave it be. With a cover crop, you can choose to have something that benefits your soil, rather than pesky weeds, and at least you will have something you planned and can control. For example, often I will put in a very quick-growing cover crop in the area where I plan to plant squash. I am not going to plant squash until next week, and I don’t really want to have left that area to grow lamb’s quarters and crabgrass! I put a smothering cover crop in and it pushed out things I don’t want to deal with while building good organic matter. By the same token, if you harvest all of your lettuce and don’t have another use planned for the land, throw in a cover crop before nature does it for you.

By USDA NRCS South Dakota [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cover crop mix (crimson clover, oats, common vetch, radish and turnip), Paul Hetland farm, South Dakota. (Photo by USDA NRCS South Dakota, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of my favorite cover crops is oats. You can get whole oats from the Farmers Co-op. They are feed oats, the kind you give horses. They are inexpensive, and you will have lots to share with your garden friends. If you don’t need much, perhaps you could also offer some to your horse-owner friends. Oats are a wonderful cover crop for smothering weeds. They also encourage micro-organisms that help with phosphorous uptake and they add a lot of organic matter to the soil, which is why cover crops are sometimes called “green manure.”

You can also use sweet clover, so long as you cut it before it flowers. Otherwise it will become a weed. Don’t use white clover, as it is a perennial weed that has horrible roots. But sweet clover is good. It also adds a lot of organic matter and fixes nitrogen, so it contributes to your soil.

Other options include oil seed, radish and forage kale. I use this kind of kale a lot. I eat it too, and feed it to the farm animals and plow some in, so it is not technically a cover crop for me, but it is a good choice for suppressing crab grass. If you have a crab grass problem, better not to use oats because they both like the same kind of environment and will grow happily together. But oil seed radish and forage kale are brassicas, and brassicas actually suppress crabgrass.

So cover crops can be good at weed control, but they can also be used for pest control. They can break a pest cycle. If you have nematode buildup in your potato patch, for example, plant a cover crop of a completely different plant family. This will break the cycle of the pest that was bothering you.

Forage kale

Forage kale

You may think I am talking about large spaces, or that it isn’t worth it for your small garden, but cover crops can be helpful even in small areas. Most backyard gardeners use every square inch, but what you might do in the fall after you pull your tomatoes and beans, for example, is plant a cover crop like oats. You can plant it well into September or even October, depending on the weather. Or, you can plant it in the understory — under your bigger crops — so that it grows very slowly and gently. When you harvest your bigger crops, it shoots up to replace them.

This is very helpful because you don’t want to leave bare ground in the fall and winter; that is just a recipe for nature to come along and wash your soil away. Just a couple of inches of oat grass will help stabilize your soil in winter. Oats are great because they are a winter kill crop, so you can just brush them aside in the spring and plant directly into the lovely soil. Some people use winter rye, but it doesn’t winter kill. I prefer ease of planting to digging up rye, especially in a backyard garden where you are probably working by hand. People also use buckwheat, but it doesn’t add much organic matter, and doesn’t drown out weeds, so I don’t know why.

Other people use straw as a mulch, or even as winter cover, so they don’t bother to plant a green cover crop. Mulch can be good, but straw is very high in carbon, and will deplete the soil’s nitrogen as it rots, meaning you will have to take further action anyway. You could use hay, which won’t give you the nitrogen problem, but since hay has a lot of seeds, you will end up with a lot of weeds. Better to plant an appropriate cover crop from the outset.

And finally, in case you have bitten off more than you can chew with your first garden and want to cut back, plant a cover crop in the area you can’t manage. It will stabilize your soil until you get a chance to expand again, at a pace more appropriate for you.

Next week is squash planting time for me, so if you haven’t done that yet you may want to wait for the column.

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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



Have you ever wondered how Michelle Smith finds the time to produce these weekly garden tips on top of farming, baking, marketing her produce, writing her monthly Bean There columns for The Spectator, plus a myriad other activities? The answer is: with a little help from a friend, Madeline Yakimchuk, whom we’ve convinced to take credit for her contribution, starting this week:


Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses  la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.




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