Soil Health FAQs
- What is a cover crop?
- Will cover crops look messy?
- Is it more expensive to use cover crops?
- What are the long term soil health benefits of no-till planting and cover crops?
- Where can I find cover crop seeds?
- Where can I find technical assistance?
- What equipment will I need?
- How do I plant without tilling?
- How do production rates change when you use no-till and cover crops?
- Will cover crops attract rodents and bugs?
- Will cover cropping require permits? Are there ordinances against their use?
- Are there any cost-share opportunities or seed kits available?
- Are there any local leaders in the practice of no-till and cover cropping?
- What's the best way to rotate crops if I only grow a single vegetable, like tomatoes?
- When will I see results?
- Which cover crops are best for my garden?
- Where can I find more resources about soil health and soil science?
- What should be on my checklist to improve soil health?
What is a cover crop?
A cover crop is a specific plant (or plants) grown to benefit the soil. Cover crops are typically grasses or legumes, but may include other types of plants depending on the deisred result of the cover crop. Cover crops are grown in the off-season to prevent soil erosion, build soil fertility, increase water availability, suppress weeds, control diseases and pests, promote biodiversity, and a myriad of other benefits.
Will cover crops look messy?
Your garden’s appearance is a personal choice, but there’s a lot to say in favor of planted spaces over bare earth. A lot of it depends on what type of cover crops you choose to grow. Not only do they help prevent eroded soil from spilling over yards and walkways and running off into the storm system, they also can create a green space in your yard through the winter, provide cover for wildlife, a colorful aesthetic in an otherwise dreary landscape, and more.
Is it more expensive to use cover crops?
This is a complicated question as it involves a number of variables, but the answer is probably no. Building healthy soil through the use of cover crops can lead to a reduced reliance on watering and use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. You will also be able to reduce the expense of compost to build fertile soil. And to top it all off, cover crop seeds are relatively cheap!
What are the long term soil health benefits of no-till planting and cover crops?
The benefits of this type of growing operation are so great that the National Resource Conservation Service has made no-till and cover cropping a top priority. As soil health increases, a number of things happen:
- Soil moisture increases and therefore requires less irrigation, saving groundwater sources for other purposes and reducing potentially polluted runoff from reaching nearby streams. Water shortages are projected to occur nationwide within the next 10-20 years, so using soils to help store and replenish water is vitally important.
- Soil organic matter increases and this coupled with the healthy and diverse microbe (soil insects and animals) community that develops, help increase crop yields without the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, taking all of these potential pollutants out of the air and water—and your budget.
- Healthy soil sequesters more carbon, and this can have a measurable effect on climate change. The reduced use of chemicals and mechanical tillage also reduces energy and the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere.
- Cover crops can help support important pollinator populations, and these insects are critical to food production, the vitality of natural lands and the economy.
Where can I find cover crop seeds?
The best place to start is with your local Soil and Water Conservation District . They can help you find reputable sources for your region.
Where can I find technical assistance?
There are several organizations that offer technical assistance.
What equipment will I need?
If you have a small garden and typically use only hand tools, you likely have everything you need already. To best protect soil health consider ditching the roto-tiller.
How do I plant without tilling?
If you are transplanting, push the cover crop or mulch aside and dig your planting hole. When planting seed, use a hoe to push aside the cover crop or mulch. Then use the hoe to create your row and slit in the soil. For a single line of seeds, your row shouldn’t be any wider than the width of your hoe (no wider than 6 inches). Sow your seeds and cover with the soil. Leave the mulch alongside your row of seeds.
How do production rates change when you use no-till and cover crops?
It’s pretty simple: eliminating tillage and adding cover crops to your garden can produce larger yields. In fact, this type of farming has been catching on with large producers for the past decade or more, and that trend is directly related to increased yields and cost savings. The environmental benefits are significant.
Will cover crops attract rodents and bugs?
Cover crops can attract bugs—and that is often a good thing! After all, healthy soil is healthy because it is a fully functioning ecosystem. When the system is weak, you will still get bugs, but typically the wrong kind (the ones that eat your crops!). A strong system includes insects that control pest populations, protecting your crops and reducing or eliminating the need for insecticides.
Gardens themselves can attract rodents, so cover crops do not pose a new threat. To limit the attraction, you should cut certain cover crops, such as oats, wheat, and rye, before they set seed.
Will cover cropping require permits? Are there ordinances against their use?
Many communities do have standard weed ordinances that might appear to conflict with cover cropping. However, more and more communities have begun to recognize the difference between weeds and purposeful plantings that carry an environmental benefit, and some have adopted exceptions that allow for this kind of activity. If you’re in doubt, check with your municipality’s code enforcement office.
Are there any cost-share opportunities or seed kits available?
Many Chesapeake Bay-area counties offer cost-share opportunities to help pay for soil health practices like cover crops through the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). These programs may or may not be available for smaller gardens, so it’s best to contact your county’s SWCD for more information.
Are there any local leaders in the practice of no-till and cover cropping?
The use of cover crops and minimal tilling practices in community or backyard gardens is a relatively new practice but growing quickly in popularity. Your local SWCD is likely the best place to go for more information on no-till and cover cropping. You can always contact the Fair Farms Campaign at email@example.com if you need more assistance or have questions about healthy soils.
What's the best way to rotate crops if I only grow a single vegetable, like tomatoes?
First, try planting your vegetable in a different location in your yard and set up a rotation between this new location and your current location. If you don’t have another place or room in your yard to relocate and don’t want to give up the taste of a fresh, home grown tomato, try container gardening. Tomatoes, and many types of vegetables, can easily be grown in containers. Your cover crop can be planted as soon as you’ve harvested your last tomato. When growing season comes around, leave the cover crop to do it’s thing and plant your tomato in a container. The cover crop will recharge your soil and also add diversity to what grows in that location. After you have grown a cover crop for a year, you can plant your tomato in the ground when the next growing season comes around. It is however, a good idea to keep the ground to container rotation going year after year so that you can continue to build the soil health.
When will I see results?
How quickly you see all the benefits partly depends on the quality of your soil when you begin implementing using cover crops, reducing tillage, mulching, etc. You will definitely see some improvement in water infiltration, drought tolerance, and weed reduction quickly. These results only improve with each growing season as you continue to implement the practices year after year. If you are dealing with unique soil conditions, such as heavy clay or compacted soils, or sandy soils on the other extreme, improvement will be slower. Each growing season takes nutrients from the soil, so replenishing the soil with organic matter is key after harvest. A soil test will help you know where to begin and give you an idea of what the current amount of organic matter in your soil is.
Rebuilding soil health should be thought of as a journey and one that never ends. It requires patience as you begin trying the different practices, such as cover crops, mulching, composting and reduced or no tilling. Using any of the soil improvement practices will help, but using them together as a system will give you the quickest and best results long-term.
Which cover crops are best for my garden?
Which cover crop you use depends on your soil's needs. Begin with a soil test to determine if there is something missing that a cover crop can replace. Heavy or compacted soils benefit from a planting of radishes to break up the soil. If you are simply working on making your garden's soil healthy and living, plant cover crops in a small section of your garden. Oats and hairy vetch are easy to use, provide good cover, and add great nutrients, so they are a good mix to start you on your way.
If you still have questions or would like additional help, check with another grower or contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District. There are many different combinations of cover crops to use depending on not only your current needs, but as your soils and crops change.
Where can I find more resources about soil health and soil science?
There are a number of case studies from many different sources in regard to the value of cover crops, reduced tillage, and crop rotation. The National Resource Conservation Service is leading this effort among large-production agriculture and has great videos and research findings related to soil health on their Unlock the Secrets webpage.
What should be on my checklist to improve soil health?
Below is a simple checklist of things you can do to improve soil health.
√ Have your soil tested
√ Grow a diversity of plants
√ Keep plants growing in the soil for as long as possible each year
√ Use cover crops and mulch to hold moisture and suppress weeds
√ Uncover only the areas of the soil you need to when planting seeds and plants