Breaking It Down: Why Cover Crops Kick A**, Part 2

Cover crops are being used more and more in commercial farming as growers look for ways to cut down on pesticides, herbicides and keep the top soil healthy.  Cover crops bring diversity into a field, helping to avoid monocultures, which can weaken both crops and soil.  However, you don’t need to be a commercial farmer to use a cover crop.  They can easily be used on a small scale in the backyard garden or small homestead farm.

cover crop chart

USDA Cover Crop Benefits Chart

In addition to the benefits discussed in Part 1, cover crops also:

Help to control pests and diseases.  Cover crops planted as companion plantings can help keep pests down by helping to confuse them.  Some pests are plant-specific; you’ll find cabbage worms on broccoli but not on spinach.  The pest looks for a particular plant to lay their eggs on; it lands on the plant and feels it out to determine if its the right plant; the pest will land and flit a couple of times before it makes a decision; and if everything lines up, it will lay its eggs.  But, if there are other plants in the bed with the broccoli, chances are that the pest will land on those plants as well, and it will confuse them enough that they will hesitate to lay their eggs.

Hoverfly

Hoverfly

As far as helping to control diseases, cover crops can create an inhospitable soil environment for many soilborne diseases. There are many pathogens that sometimes winter over on the soil, and when the soil becomes dry and dusty, the pathogen can spread to your plants by any disturbance.  Likewise, when it rains, water carries the pathogen to plants by splashing.  A cover crop helps reduce dust and also controls the way water touches down on the ground (less splashing – less spreading).

Slowing water run-off and reducing soil loss/erosion.  Quick-growing cover crops hold soil in place, reduce crusting and protect against erosion due to wind and rain.  The aboveground portion of cover crops also helps to protect soil from the impact of raindrops.  Long-term use of cover crops increases water infiltration and reduces runoff that can carry away soil

Honeybee

Honeybee

Helping control temperature and moisture.  Residue from killed cover crops increases water infiltration and reduces evaporation, resulting in less moisture stress during drought.

Parasitoid Wasp

Parasitoid Wasp

Attracting beneficial insects and pollinators.  Insectary cover crops are plants that attract beneficial insects.  They provide nectar and pollen for many beneficial insects.  Nectar and pollen are critical for the survival, development and reproductive success of bees as well as many natural enemy species such as hoverflies and parasitoids.  Natural enemies kill the pests, and help keep the pest population down.

Have I persuaded you yet? Thinking about what type of cover crop plant?  Here is a handy tool from the Cornell University to help you decide:  Cover Crop Decision Tool

Next, B-e  A-g-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e, But Not Too Aggressive: Planting and Control of The Cover Crop