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Winter Cover Cropping – Different Cover Crops and What Makes Them Great!

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Hey DirtMagicians,

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Quick summary of the blog post: Thanks for stopping by to read the post on winter cover crops. This blog post covers winter cover cropping, its benefits and broad categories of winter cover crops.

Click below to download our Freebie for s "Types of Winter Cover Crops".

Benefits of winter covercropping

Proper planning and execution are key to protecting your soil during the Fall and Winter months so that you can have a healthy and abundant garden during your growing season.

One way you can build resiliency against harsh weather conditions is to plant cover crops in the late summer and early fall. This covers your exposed and empty garden bed soils over the winters.

So, what is winter cover cropping?

Winter cover-cropping refers to planting cold hardy plants, typically grasses and legumes, which can tolerate the winter temperatures and benefit the soil. That's why winter cover crops are called "green manure" and "living mulch" as they are alive while protecting the soil.

What can i grow as a cover crop
Image: Rows of strawberry covercrops

There are so many benefits to covercropping- come take a deeper dive into how they benefit your soil and vegetables!

Benefits of Winter Cover Cropping

Increase water infiltration – More water flows into the soil!

As winter approaches in North America, our soils are vulnerable to the large amounts of precipitation in rain and snow many of our northern climates receive. Cover crops allow for an increased flow of water into the soil. This is because their roots provide channels for the water to not only enter the soil but travel down through the soil. This increases not only how much water can flow through the soil but also how much water the soil can store! When water sits on top of the soil or when water is constantly attacking the soil with its large drops, without the protection of plant matter, our soils start to crust over. Crusting is a term that means the top layer of the soil seals, not allowing water to enter. So once again, cover crops rescue the soil and prevent this from happening!

How do covercrops stop erosion
Image: Soil that’s crusted over time

Prevent soil erosion – Prevent soil from getting carried away from our gardens

So remember how we said water can sit on top of the soil?

Well, when it does this it has to eventually flow off the top which is a process called runoff. When this occurs, the water can pick up soil particles and as the water flows away (runoff) it takes the soil with it! This rude behaviour of soil being carried away is called erosion. Heavy winds can also cause this to occur. Notice how dusty it is during a windstorm- you are actively watching soil erode away! However, winter cover cropping can come to the rescue! When planted in late summer/early fall the root system of these crops will have grown large enough to hold the soil together. Picture roots “securing the hatches” before the storm. This, and the increased water flow we already discussed reduces soil erosion. It is estimated that these crops can reduce runoff by 80% (Blanco-Canqui, 2015)! That is one large feat for a tiny plant

Nutrient Love! Cover crops help retain nutrients, reduce nutrient losses and ADD nutrients!

Bare soil in the winter can cause heavy losses of nutrients. In case you didn’t know, our soils have over 12 nutrients, plants need for healthy growth. Many stormy processes in the winter can cause losses of nutrients in the soil. One way we lose nutrients is through soil erosion. Our soil particles are where many of the nutrient goodies can be found, so when they are carried away, so too are the nutrients. Many nutrients can also be lost through leaching, which means nutrients are being flushed out of the soil by water. Cover crops hold onto both soil and nutrients so we lose less over the winter, hence, cover crops help reduce nutrient losses. This becomes a full, nutrient cycle in the spring when we cut these cover crops down. As they decompose the nutrients they were holding onto, are released back into the soil for our -vegetable plants to access! It's the ciirrrcclllee of life (Dee singing in her Lion King voice)

Can covercrops add nutrients to the soil
Image: Measuring soil nutrients

We also have some superstar plants called legumes which include winter cover crops like vetch and clover, these legumes fix nitrogen. “Fixing nitrogen” is a fancy term for being able to take nitrogen we find in our atmosphere, and convert it to a form plants can use, and trust us, plants need ALOT of nitrogen. These legumes make homes in their roots for bacteria that are able to do this process and then these bacteria supply the roots of our legumes with nitrogen. These plants end up being really high in nitrogen, so when we decompose them back into the soil in the spring, we are increasing how much nitrogen we have in the soil, meaning we need fewer nitrogen fertilizers..

different types of covercrops

Feed Soil Organisms

Soil organisms like bacteria and fungi which help maintain the health of our soil are fed by cover crops. Cover crops help in sustaining the beneficial bacteria and fungi as they survive on the plant roots which release carbohydrates and in return, these beneficial pals provide nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to the plant roots.

are covercrops good for soil

Attract Beneficial Predatory Insects

There are many insects that eat and predate on our garden pests, however pollen is another essential part of their diet. Examples include ground beetles and ladybugs which feed on vegetable garden pests and need pollen and nectar from flowers. as part of their diet. Planting cover crops attract these beneficial insects as many of our cover crops flower in the spring before other flowers have appeared, providing essential pollen/nectar food. By feeding our ground beetles and ladybugs we keep them alive and ready to start attacking our garden pests when they emerge.

Reduce Soil Compaction

Soil compaction is a fancy way of referring to collapsed soil. Our soil naturally has a structure to it, with many tunnels and holes throughout - it’s the only reason we can dig! If we had to dig through a straight mass of soil without these holes, tunnels and pores it would be near impossible! The weight and downward pressure of heavy precipitation (rain or snow) can cause the collapse of our soil structure and thus causes compaction of our soil. Planting cover crops keep the soil structure intact, meaning nice loose soil. The plant material of the cover crops also prevents direct pressure hits of rain on the soil. Cover crops also produce natural glues which help form even more structures like tunnels and pores in the soil.

Bigger & Better Vegetables

As might be evident to you, cover crops really help with the health of our soil by feeding soil organisms, maintaining soil structure, increasing water flow and storage, adding nutrients, the list goes on! A US government survey also shows that farmers who planted cover crops had increased yield the next year.

Types of Cover Crops

We typically break our cover crops into two different broad categories:

Nitrogen Fixers: These are the cover crops with a home in the roots for bacteria that give lots of nitrogen to these plants, causing them to be really high in nitrogen. So adding these will increase the number of nutrients in our soil when they decompose in the spring.

Different types of covercrops - Nitrogen-fixer covercrop

Soilbuilders: These are cover crops that retain nutrients, recycling them back into the soil in the spring. They also have extensive root structures to hold and protect our soil over the winter.

It’s nice to plant a mix of both- the nitrogen fixers to add nutrients and the soil builders to conserve the nutrients already in the soil and retain our soil structure.

If we’ve convinced you that cover cropping might be for you, check out our freebie on “Types of Cover Crops” where we deep dive into all of the different types of winter cover crops, what they do and what growing conditions they need so you can make the decision that is best for you!

What can I grow as a covercrop

Summing it up –

So, DirtMagicians do not leave your garden at the whims of winters now and do not let the cold winter months spoil your garden soil. Grab some planting tools and start planning to plant covercrops in different garden beds which will actually replenish your garden soil!

And at DirtMagicians we love hearing from you. So let us know if you chose and planted one of these winter cover crops.

We have a free gift for you to download - where we give you types of cover crops you can grow for winters.

Click below to download our Types of Winter Cover Crops freebie and learn a little about each type.

Sayonara for now! Happy growing ϑ

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