Cover Crops Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Comments on a Reader’s Plan – Cover Crops – Turning the Soil – and more

I have a reader and friend who — although she’s only gardened a few years — comes up with some of the greatest ideas and ways to approach things.

She writes to me from time to time and updates me on what she’s doing and what her latest garden plan is. Some of her ideas don’t always go along with mine, but she is so innovate and bright that I always find her ideas intriguing and worth thinking over a bit before making a judgement about whatever it is that she intends to try.

It’s difficult to determine another persons situation through a brief email. With that in mind — I try to “listen” a lot and don’t voice too much opinion about what others are trying.

How this Post May be Valuable to You

Hearing the ideas that other gardeners have — helps us to create and follow through on new ideas that might help our own gardens. And it’s with that in mind that I decided to share her plans and ideas for her recent garden renovation and my comments on various points.

Reader’s Garden Renovation Plan

One of the main concerns for this gardener, has been that “the garden was too big to manage for the straw that it needed.”  In addition to improving the soil her cover crops will serve the purpose of a cover for her beds.  A good step toward sustainability.  The more we can do to keep from depending on others — the better off we are.

Here’s the plan as I understand it:

  • All of the garden was “deeply prepared” when it was initially created some years ago.  To begin this renovation her husband used a tractor and disc to flatten (smooth out) the garden.
  • A 4 foot border will be planted around the garden in dutch white clover.
  • Beds for crops will be 2 feet wide.  She notes that this is the width of the tiller.
  • “Form the beds to mounds.”  (I am taking this to mean that they will pull soil from the paths up into the beds in order to mound the beds.)
  • Cover crops  (mainly rye) will be planted in most of the new beds for fall.  Other beds where the fall crop of garlic and the early spring crops of onions and lettuce will go are to be covered with straw.
  • They “plan to plant a TON of kale – very heavily to try to make it both a living mulch and an edible crop” that will “manage the weeds that may come in.”
  • The idea to seed kale heavily – came from their direct seeding  “lettuce so heavily that no weeds could grow in-between it.  We saw that we liked the idea of using the living, edible crops for weed control.  This was the idea for the kale since it typically lasts through the winter and onto early spring.”
  • We will be using less mulch (smaller beds and no mulching in the paths) and more hoeing.

My Comments

Tractors, Ploughing, Tilling, Discing and Hoeing

These things are so much apart of us and how we perceive gardening and farming it’s hard to believe that their use is not the best practice.

When ground is first broken — it’s expedient to use a tiller to help with deep preparation. For some, deep preparation would be impossible without this help. (I have always hand dug beds, but Bill has done both — hand dug and used a tiller for deep preparation.)

Every time we do this “severe manipulation” (whether hand digging or tilling) to the soil — it kills a lot of the microorganism (soil life) in the soil. Our goal is to strive for more and more soil life — not less.  The more active soil life there is — the better our plants will perform.

Can the soil recover?  Of course it can.  But here’s the thing — why would you want to set your garden back with continual severe manipulation of the soil once or even twice or more a year? If you strive for permanent beds, you can go out in the spring — pull back the mulch and plant your crops.  Done.

Even your cover crops can be planned so their roots remain in the ground and work for you.  Although you can certainly turn under your cover crops if you want — studies show that cutting them and laying them on top of the beds is just as effective and sometimes even more so.

Dutch White Clover

The idea of a 4 foot border  of Dutch White Clover around the garden is excellent.  It grows about 6 to 12 inches, tolerates shade and foot traffic.  It’s a perennial and can be mowed making it an excellent choice for paths.

It’ll help with weed control.  It draws bees and other beneficials to your garden and gives them a place to live.

The nitrogen fixing bacteria living in nodules on it’s roots convert nitrogen in the air into a form plants can use.  So it makes an excellent cover crop.  And can be used to under-plant (plant with) other crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.  Then you’ve got a living mulch and a soil improver in the same package.

Two Foot Wide Beds

I’ve thought about and desired two foot wide beds ever since I saw a video some years ago of a small market grower straddling a two foot wide bed and harvesting a crop of greens.

My beds are about 3 feet wide and easy to work. They might be even easier if they were only 2 feet wide AND I could get more beds in the garden.  I don’t know that I’ll have the time now to make this kind of change — but it’s something I’m thinking about.

Paths that are not Mulched?

Mulched paths are very beneficial.  See my post: Why Mulch your Garden Paths

Cover Crops / Diversity

Winter rye is a great cover crop.

To avoid having to turn under it’s thick fibrous roots – just a little planning is required. (I’ll be doing a post in the future about my success planting tomatoes into the stubble of winter rye.)

It makes a lot of top growth (biomass).  If you cut it just before it seeds in late spring — it’ll make a nice straw to be used to mulch the bed as well as returning nutrients to the bed.

Just remember — to get the most out of your cover crops — diversity is the key.    Diversity is one of natures most important keys to making your garden great.

A Quick Cover Crop

And there’s still time to give those other beds a boost with a cover crop of buckwheat.  It’ll be up and running in no time, and can be  incorporated into the soil early (within a month) if necessary. Two weeks after that you could plant if you wanted to.

Kale as a Cover Crop

I love how my reader came to this idea: By noticing that when she seeded lettuce heavily no weeds grew between the plants.

I did think of one unfavorable reality that needs to be considered:

Cultivation of kale (or any Brassica) in mass in a given area (monoculture) can bring in more Harlequin Bugs that you want to deal with.  And if you have not attained perfect soil in your garden (I have NOT done so yet) — then you have a great chance of having your kale invested with Harlequin Bug and other pests that attack Brassica.

Most likely the kale will be fine this winter — but in late spring and early summer next year — the bugs will come.  In order to avoid that – the gardener must be prepared to take action and remove or turn under the crop before that happens.

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve come up with some great ideas of your own by reading what my friend plans and by hearing my comments.


Additional Reading:

Why Mulch your Garden Paths

Sustainable Gardening for Even More Success

Soil Improvement – Your Foundation for Success

Soil – Most Valuable Asset for your Garden

Principle of Diversity – Assuring Your Success

Garden Diversity can Equal Better Organic Pest/Disease Control

One Man Sharpens Another – Even in the Garden

Garden Strategy for Better Overall Garden Health

Cover Crops – Benefits – Some Easy Ones

Cover Crops – Your purpose Determines When you cut or incorporate into the Soil

Cover Crops – 2 Reasons Why and 2 Suggestions

Cover Crops – Buckwheat is One of the Easiest

All content including photos is copyright by  All Rights Reserved.


  • “lettuce so heavily that no weeds could grow in-between it.”

    That sounds very good. In fact it’s what Spouse did in his garden bed – by accident.

    But they weren’t too crowded for slugs 🙁

  • In my experience, I always find aphids overwintering on kale. It is always so infested, it can’t be eaten. I suppose it is also a good trap crop for aphids, as they seem to be no where else in the garden throughout the growing season than on the cole crops, and kale is always the worst.

  • I love this thinking outside of the box. Being able to eat the cover crop is great. I found this year that sweet potatoes make a great mulch for tomato plants, keeping a nice thick cover under the tomatoes. I also have sowed lettuce thickly like that, and it’s good for cutting small, but it also makes a great slug hangout. I’d love to see some pictures of this interesting garden.
    Thanks for sharing the inspiration, Theresa

  • It’s always good to be aware of possible unfavorable results when going into a situation.
    Thanks Mary, GardenDmpls, and Sandra for pointing out the possibility of problems with aphids and slugs.

    Sandra I loved the idea of using sweet potatoes as a mulch for tomatoes. I think I might have to plan to do that next year. Great input!


  • I think most traditional cover crops can be eaten/foraged from the garden, right?: clover, buckwheat, rye seed. We plan to try a bed of strawberries one day to act as a living mulch. Once it’s done, we were thinking of mulching and planting late tomatoes, peppers, etc.

  • Theresa, once again you brighten and enlighten my day. I am going to try the dutch clover as a border. That sounds like a solution to a problem for me.

  • Yes Bearfoot Mama — most traditional cover crops can in the end be eaten — but they are most beneficial for the soil when they are cut and/or incorporated BEFORE they produce seed. If allowed to seed — the seed will have most of the nutrients rather than the biomass.

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