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Why You Need Cover Crops in Your Backyard

I first heard of cover crops from the documentary The Biggest Little Farm (great film, I highly recommend).

My backyard in Ventura, California is mostly clay, so breaking up that hard, dry dirt and turning it into soil will take some work. I’m hoping that cover crops can help ease this process.

So, I did some research and thought I might save you time by sharing what I found with you.

What are cover crops?

my annual ryegrass cover crop in my backyard garden after a few weeks
My annual ryegrass at 4 to 5 weeks

Cover crops are plants that benefit the soil. Unlike other crops, they aren’t harvested. Their purpose is to manage soil quality, hold water, and keep diseases and pests away.

Cover crops types include:

  • Grasses
  • Clovers
  • Legumes (beans)

Some grass cover crops are typically varieties of rye and oats, while some clover and legume crops are crimson clover, beans, and peas.

Do you need cover crops in your backyard?

cracked and dry dirt

The answer is YES! You can definitely benefit from having cover crops in your backyard.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Composting into organic matter for the soil
  • Protecting your soil against rain and wind erosion
  • Providing the soil with a high amount of nitrogen (a primary ingredient for plant life)

Which cover crops to choose

bean sprout growing in dry ground

If you’re wondering which cover crops will work for you and your backyard, you can start by answering these questions:

  • What are the right cover crops for your climate?
  • Is it the right season to plant the variety you have in mind?
  • Will the seeds mature in time for your gardening plans?
  • How aggressive will the cover crops be and will they take over your garden?

Before you plant cover crops, knowing their climate, season, time frame, and persistence can make your work MUCH more effective and easier in the long-run. For example, if you’re planting in winter or colder climates, cover crops like rye or wheat can be best. If you’re planting in summer or warmer climates, crimson clover and oats are popular choices.

How to grow cover crops

a hand planting cover crops in a row

Once you find out what cover crops work best, most varieties can be grown in the same way. Growing these plants in your backyard can seem daunting, but it can be done with minimal work and a little patience (as they often grow quite fast).

Here are some quick steps to start growing cover crops in your backyard:

  1. Clear and rake the soil
  2. Spread the cover crop seeds over the shallow furrows made by the raking
  3. Rake again, but this time make a cross, by going from the other side until 1/8″ to 1/4″ of dirt covers the seeds
  4. Water as suggested for the type of cover crop

How to cut and use cover crops

a man mowing cover crops in a backyard

Now that you have your cover crops the way you want them, it’s time to process them. There are a few ways to do this, depending on the type of crop you have.

To cut and use your backyard cover crops, you can try:

  • Mowing
  • Chopping
  • Eating
  • Tilling

If you decide to mow or chop, keep in mind that to provide the best nutrients for the soil, the plants should die. Some cover crops can still grow after being mowed and will need to be processed differently to become soil matter.

Eating your cover crops is another way to remove them once they’ve grown, although many would argue that this defeats the purpose. Simply put, their nutrients are usually intended for the soil, and not us.

Whichever option you choose, as long as the crop dies and gets absorbed into the soil, it’s doing it’s job as a cover crop.

Cover crops are a great resource to use for any garden, especially one in your backyard. With its benefits of adding rich nutrients, preventing erosion, and boosting nitrogen, your soil can start to thrive. And if you have high clay content (like me), then this is a welcome gift as it means shaving off lots of time manually amending clay into usable soil. Start by researching which cover crops work best in your climate and for your garden purposes. When they’re grown, tilling them back into the soil can speed up the composting process. Which means you can plant your garden in its place much sooner.

a picture of me pointing to my ryegrass in my backyard garden
They may look like weeds, but they’re my babies