Top 5 Cover Crops for Your Small Farm

Cover crops are also called "green manure" and sometimes, "living mulch." They are plants that are grown to suppress weeds, help build and improve soil, and control diseases and pests. They can add nitrogen to your soil, building fertility without using chemical fertilizer. You can plant them in between rows of other crops to help suppress weeds while building fertility. They often have tap roots that help break up compacted soils and improve their structures. They help control...MORE erosion, holding onto valuable, rich topsoil in between plantings. They help hold soil moisture. And they can even build disease resistance in other crops.

So, of course, you want to plant a cover crop! The main question is, which one do you use? Different cover crops can provide different benefits, suit your climate better or worse than others, and match your needs best at a certain time. You might plant red clover between rows of vegetable crops to control weeds, but plant buckwheat in a field that is fallow for a season, to build fertility and improve structure. In the fall, you'll want to plant winter rye or vetch, but in the spring, you might choose sorghum.

Here are my top five cover crop choices for the small farm -- figure out which one best meets your farmstead's needs!

  • 01 of 05

    Rye - Winter Rye, Cereal Rye

    Rye (Secale cereale)
    Tier Und Naturfotografie J und C Sohns/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

    Rye - winter rye or cereal rye - is a great cover crop to plant in the fall or early winter. It excels at loosening compacted soil and is good for weed suppression too. It also catches excess nitrogen in the soil.

  • 02 of 05
    Buckwheat growing.
    Photo © Flickr user TANAKA Juuyoh

    Buckwheat grows very quickly. It makes a great ground cover to prevent erosion and does suppress weeds. Because of its fast-growing nature, it can be interplanted with other crops, and it can be planted late in summer.

  • 03 of 05
    A field of red clover.
    Photo © Flickr user shannonm75

    Crimson clover, red clover, and white Dutch clover are all used as cover crops. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and is great for adding fertility to your soil. Yellow clover is perfect for improving soil structure. Medium red clover has an array of benefits and is often used by small farmers to plant between vegetable rows.

  • 04 of 05
    A field of sorghum against the sky.

    Sorghum-Sudangrass is a hybrid crop that grows quickly and forms an extensive root structure. Use it to suppress weeds and protect your soil from erosion. It also adds biomass to the soil since it grows so tall.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05
    Hairy vetch.
    Photo © Flickr user Dawn Endico

    Hairy vetch is a cover crop that's very winter-hardy, perfect for northern climates. It also adds a lot of nitrogen to the soil - if allowed to grow over the winter into May, it can add an incredible amount of fertility to the soil.