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The Scoop on Cover Crops

By on June 29, 2010

Recently, on our Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply Facebook page, there was a request made for more information about our cover crops. Being a newbie to the farming and gardening world, I was left scratching my head on where to even begin. After some scavenging around the internet and our own personal library, I am proud to say that I know now what a cover crop is! Through my researching process, I found a lot of great information concerning this topic, but one website in particular was especially helpful in answering my questions. ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, features an entire article about cover crops called, “Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures.” Without this article, I might still be lost and for this reason I would like to dedicate this post on sharing some of the most helpful information found in the literature about cover crops.

*This information was taken directly from the article, written by Preston Sullivan, NCAT Agriculture Specialist, in July of 2003.

Principle Uses of Cover Crops and Green Manures

“Green manuring” involves the soil incorporation of any field or forage crop while green or soon after flowering, for the purpose of soil improvement. A cover crops is the broad term for any crop that is grown to provide soil cover, regardless of whether it is later incorporated. Cover crops are most often used to prevent soil erosion from the wind and water and can be found as annual, biennial, or perennial herbaceous plants which are grown in a pure or mixed stand during all or part of the year. Cover crops do a number of things, some of which include: providing ground cover, helping to fight weeds and insect pests/disease, and in the case of legumes, fixing the nitrogen in your soil.

Winter cover crop

A winter cover crop is planted in late summer or fall to provide soil cover during the winter. Often a legume is chosen for the added benefit of nitrogen fixation. In northern states, the plant selected needs to possess enough cold tolerance to survive hard winters. Hairy vetch and rye are among the few selections that meet this need.

Many more winter cover crops are adapted to the southern U.S. These cool-season legumes include clover, vetches, medics, and peas. They are sometimes planted in a mix with with winter cereal grains such as oats, rye, or wheat. Winter cover crops can be established by aerial seeding into maturing cash crops in the fall, as well as by drilling or broadcasting seed immediately following harvest.

Summer green manure crop

A summer green manure occupies the land for a portion of the summer growing season. These warm-season cover crops can be used to fill a niche in crop rotations, to improve the conditions of poor soils, or to prepare land for a perennial crop. Legumes such as cowpeas, soybeans, annual sweetclover, sesbania, guar, crotolaria, or velvet beans may be grown as summer green manure crops to add nitrogen along with organic matter. Non-legumes such as sorghum-sudangrass, millet, forage sorghum, or buckwheat are grown to provide biomass, smother weeds, and improve soil tilth.

Benefits of Cover Crops and Green Manures

Organic matter and soil structure

A major benefit obtained from green manures is the addition of organic matter to the soil. During the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, compounds are formed that are resistant to decomposition—such as gums, waxes, and resins. These compounds—and the mycelia, mucus, and slime produced by the microorganisms—help bind together soil particles as granules, or aggregates. A well-aggregated soil tills easily, is well aerated, and has a high water infiltration rate. Increased levels of organic matter also influence soil humus. Humus—the substance that results as the end product of the decay of plant and animal materials in the soil—provides a wide range of benefits to crop production.

Sod-forming grass or grass-legume mixtures are important in crop rotations because they help replenish organic matter lost during annual cultivation. However, several  years of sod production are sometimes required before measurable changes in humus levels occur. In comparison, annual green manures have a negligible effect on humus levels, because tillage and cultivation are conducted each year. They do replenish the supply of active, rapidly decomposing organic matter.

This was only a small part of the vast amount of wonderfully helpful knowledge this article presents about cover crops. To read more, follow this link

You can also visit the ATTRA website by going to

Happy Gardening!

  Comments (4)


“Great post Sarah!! 

For anyone interested in other articles with information pertaining to specific uses of cover crops click here.

Also see our Product Planting Guide about Cover Crops here.

Posted by Andrew @ Peaceful Valley on Jun. 30, 2010 at 8:09:50 AM


I live in northern California about 4 miles from the coast.
My garden consists of several places to grow veggies, I have
many raised beds and do some gardening in the ground in
a smallish plot.

I have no garden spot large enough to actually use a tiller. Every
thing gets dug and tended to by hand.

I also have a greenhouse with some beds directly into the ground.

Can you recommend cover crops for this situation?

Thank you, Jean

Posted by Jean on Aug. 19, 2011 at 9:04:02 AM


I was trying to get some information on cover crops and the correct way to use individual mixes.  I am concerned that what I have purchased will become invasive.  I am not sure what sort of timing is necessary.

Posted by Sarah on Apr. 13, 2015 at 11:28:03 AM

Well you need to ask yourself a few questions before planting a cover crop. First, when am I going to plant? There are cool season and warm season cover crops and when you plant them is very important. Also, can I provide water to the plants (especially important in the West)? There are some mixes that are considered “dryland” and can tolerate less water. Lastly, what do you want the plants to do for you? Add organic matter to the soil, fix nitrogen, break up compact soils, weed competition…

A lot of things to consider. I would recommend looking at the cover crop solution chart found on this page. It is a quick guide to focusing in on what you want to plant. Hope this helps.

Posted by Suzanne at Peaceful Valley on Apr. 13, 2015 at 11:45:22 AM

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