Native Cover Crops: Vegetable Cover Cropping With Native Plants

Gardeners are becoming increasingly aware of the use of non-native plants. This extends to the cultivation of cover crops. What are cover crops, and do adopting native plants as cover crops have any advantages? Let’s explore this trend and you can decide if vegetation with native plants is right for you.

What are cover crops?

Instead of tilling the garden’s soil at the end of the growing season, gardeners find value in planting what are best described as “green” manure cover crops. These vegetation crops are planted in the fall, grown through the winter, and then planted in the soil in the spring.

Cover crops prevent garden soil erosion and nutrient loss in the winter, and once these plants have been tilled into the soil, they begin to return nutrients to the garden. Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen and return more nitrogen to the soil than they use.

Vetch, white clover, and winter rye are among the most popular cover crops used by gardeners. Surprisingly, these are not cover crops native to North America. Although not generally considered invasive, this species has become naturalized in most parts of the world.

Advantages of local crop cover

Commercial gardeners and growers are discovering the positive effects of cover planting with native plants. These benefits include:

Beneficial Insects – Native cover crops provide natural food and habitat for native insect populations that live within the same ecosystem. This increases the number of beneficial insects, which can provide better control of harmful invading pests.

Better Adaptability – Native cover crop plants are well adapted to the local climate. They can often be created with little or no watering and require little maintenance.

Non-invasive – Although some native plants can have aggressive tendencies, you don’t have to worry about controlling the spread of invasive species when using native plants.

Improve Nutrient Yield – In general, native cover plants have deeper roots than non-native cover plants. As these plants grow, they draw nutrients from the deeper layers of the earth. Once the original cover crops are grown underneath, natural decomposition returns these nutrients to the surface.

Choose native plants as cover crops

Growers interested in covering vegetables with native plants are advised to check with their local extension agent or agricultural agency for information on native native species. Often, seeds of local cover crops are difficult to find or expensive to purchase.

Here are some species to consider when using native plants as cover crops:

  • Annual ragweed 
  • Blue wild rye 
  • California brome 
  • Canada goldenrod 
  • Common wolly sunflower 
  • Common yarrow Hooker’s balsamroot 
  • Phacelia tanacetifolia 
  • Prairie June grass 
  • Purple vetch 
  • Scarlet gilia

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