Best Cover Crop For Raised Beds

Cover crops perform a variety of functions, including boosting soil nutrients, enhancing soil texture and drainage, feeding beneficial insects and bacteria, suppressing weeds, and minimizing soil erosion caused by precipitation and wind. Winter rye, buckwheat, clover, hairy vetch, and cowpeas are some of the best cover crops for home gardeners using raised beds.

In this article, we will discuss what is a cover crop, why they are important, and which are some of the greatest cover crops for raised beds. We will also discuss why you should consider using them, and how to plant and care for these little wonderful garden helpers.

What Exactly Are Cover Crops?

Cover crops are ready-to-sow seeds of fast-growing plants, usually legumes or grasses, that are put in late summer or fall into vacant or fallow garden beds. These crops do the hard job of rebuilding your soil health during the winter by providing vital organic matter to the soil, which improves soil structure and promotes soil fertility. Legumes also help to “fix” nitrogen in the soil. This “green manure” acts as a live mulch, preventing soil erosion over the winter.

Cover crop seeds are planted in your raised bed and the plants are then turned into the soil. Weeds are discouraged by these fast-growing, shallow-rooted crops. Because you’re practically creating your own compost, cover crops are also known as green manure or green crops.

Advantages Of Cover Crops

It’s not difficult to understand the notion of cover crops, they literally cover the ground while it’s not in active use, protecting it for the future. However, raised beds are typically quite modest to begin with. 

Is a protective cover crop truly necessary? Yes, and here are a few reasons for it:

1 – Soil quality is preserved. One of the advantages of raised bed gardens is that you have complete control over the soil you use to fill your beds. This frequently results in delightfully rich, light soil that produces happy plants.

2 – Filling a raised bed with high-quality soil and additives, on the other hand, isn’t inexpensive, and cover crops might be a fantastic way to safeguard your investment in the long run.

3 – Can boost the populations of beneficial insects and bacteria. Because raised beds are not at ground level, they may lack the naturally occurring garden buddies seen in in-ground gardens. These small assistants lower pest populations in the garden while also producing nutrients and organic matter that plants require to grow.

4 – Beneficial insects/microbes are not only beneficial in the garden, but they are also an important part of the local ecology. So everything you can do to boost the number of beneficial insects and bacteria in your environment is a good thing.

Cover Crop Planting For Raised Beds

Because your vegetable-growing season is coming to an end and the beds will be empty until spring, fall is an excellent time to plant cover crops. Pull away all of the existing plants and weeds from the raised bed before planting your cover crop. In late summer or early fall, seed your raised bed densely.

Read the seed packet for timing instructions, as some plant varieties require warmer conditions to germinate than others. You don’t want the plants to mature before the winter, though. Some cold-tolerant cover crop varieties can be planted up to a month ahead of the first frost date.

Just sprinkled the seed mix from your hands, being sure to distribute the seed equally around the raised bed. You want the plants to grow close together so that the weeds don’t take over.

Allow the cover crop plants to develop through the fall and then disregard them until April. Plants will continue to grow till winter approaches. Some types will fall dormant, while others will be wiped out by the harsh winter conditions. Plants give cover for microorganisms to overwinter during the winter. And depending on when you mow them in the early spring, perennial plants may supply nectar for early pollinators.

You’ll want to mow down your plants before the seed heads mature. You should use an edge trimmer to cut the plants in your raised bed. You might also experiment with your lawnmower. Then, with a rake, gently work the plants into the dirt.

Allow the plants to decay for a few weeks before sowing seeds or transplanting. Recommendations have ranged from two to four weeks to four to six weeks. This information can be found on the seed packet.

Best Raised Bed Cover Crops For Summer

If you reside in a hot, dry region, such as Arizona or New Mexico, you know that the harsh mid-summer weeks make it difficult (or even impossible) for many veggies to grow, let alone produce a good crop. Planting your vegetables in these locations throughout the fall, winter, and early spring offers the best results.

However, you do not want to leave your soil naked during the hot summer months. Weeds never pass up an opportunity to establish themselves, and the blazing sun and lack of moisture can turn your soil into a hard clump. This is when summer cover crops come in handy.

Summer cover crops are typically less successful at long-term soil improvement, such as eliminating clods or contributing large amounts of nutrients. They can perform these things, but not as well as winter cover crops.

Instead, the primary purpose of summer cover crops is to keep your soil from drying out, eroding, or becoming overrun by weeds over the summer weeks and months. Because the growing season is shorter in the summer, plants that develop quickly are the finest summer cover crops for raised beds.

Some great choices are:

  • Buckwheat
  • Sorghum-Sudangrass
  • Pearl Millet
  • Cowpeas

1 – Buckwheat

Benefits:

  • Quickly establish.
  • Dense growth is excellent for weed suppression and erosion avoidance.
  • Extremely low-maintenance.
  • When turned under, it increases soil phosphorus.
  • Pollinators adore the flowers produced by this plant.

Soil conditions that are preferred:

  • Soil that drains well
  • Prefers direct sunlight.
  • Low soil nutrient tolerance

Best to plant in the spring or early summer.

When to turn under:

Three weeks before planting late-summer or fall garden crops. Make sure to clip your buckwheat before the flowers bloom or you may end up with unwanted volunteers.

2 – Sorghum-Sudangrass

Benefits:

  • Rapidly develops a lot of growth
  • Excellent for weed control
  • Extremely drought-resistant
  • Grows nicely in hot weather.

Soil conditions that are preferred:

  • Tolerant of most soil pH levels, but favors 6.0 to 7.0 Can thrive in a wide range of soil textures
  • Does best when nitrogen is applied at the time of seeding.

Plant after the last projected local frost date until mid-summer.

When to turn under:

Three weeks before planting late-summer and fall garden crops. Also, use a string trimmer to chop down Sorghum-Sudangrass a few times during the growing season to prevent overgrowth and seed development.

3 – Pearl Millet

Benefits:

  • Excellent for blending with buckwheat or sorghum-Sudangrass.
  • Heat and drought tolerance is high.
  • It grows really swiftly.
  • Can grow in a variety of soil types and circumstances.

Soil conditions that are preferred:

  • Will thrive in hard clay or loose sandy soil, but prefers rich, well-draining soil.
  • Tolerates a wide variety of soil pH levels, but favors pH levels between 5.5 to 6.5.

Plant after the last anticipated local frost date and turn under 3 weeks before planting late-summer or fall garden crops.

4 – Cowpeas

Benefits:

  • Adds a lot of nitrogen to the soil and attracts a lot of beneficial garden insects.
  • After establishing itself, it is drought tolerant.
  • Deep taproots form, breaking up soil clumps and compactions.

Soil conditions that are preferred:

  • Soil that drains well and is in a sunny position.
  • Grows well in a wide range of soil pH levels, but thrives in slightly acidic circumstances.
  • Tolerates a wide range of soil types and circumstances.

Plant after the last expected local frost date and up to 9 weeks before the first expected fall frost.

Turn under 3 weeks before planting late summer/fall garden crops.

Tips For Summer Crop Planting And Turning

  • Plant your summer cover crops as soon as your spring vegetables are finished.
  • Even if you don’t live in a particularly hot area, you can find yourself with random empty spaces in your garden for a few weeks at a period. You can put a cover crop around your vegetable or flowering plants if you do. Just make sure your veggie plants have adequate space to develop their own root systems. Buckwheat is an excellent choice for this application due to its rapid growth pattern.
  • If your cover crop produces flowers, and thus seeds, trim it when roughly half of the plants have blossoms and at least 3 weeks before planting your fall crops. Turn beneath the leftover plant materials and root systems and toss the cut sections into the compost.

Extra Tips For Planting And Turning Under Winter Cover Crops

  • Plant your winter cover crop as soon as you have finished harvesting your summer/fall veggies.
  • After you’ve spread your seed, tamp it down and keep the soil moist until the seedlings appear.
  • Cut down your cover crop about 3 weeks before you start growing with vegetables and flowers. A string trimmer is an excellent tool for removing cover crops from raised beds.
  • Allow a few days for the chopped stems and foliage to dry before incorporating them into the soil. A pitchfork is the best tool for this job because you’re working with a raised bed.
  • Wait about 2 weeks after going under before planting your typical garden crops. This allows the cover crop’s root system, stems, and foliage to degrade and replenish the soil while also improving soil texture.
  • You can also compost some of the chopped foliage, especially if you planted a dense cover crop like winter rye or clover.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, cover crops for raised beds are an excellent concept for preserving the health of your garden soil and the chances for future garden productivity.

It will help reduce soil erosion and nutrient depletion, among other things. So maybe it’s time to start experimenting with it and experiencing the benefits of a simple but extremely useful cover crop strategy.