Five Useful Cover Crops To Improve Soil In Growing Areas

Bare soil is something to be avoided in a permaculture garden or growing system. Areas of bare soil will be quickly re-colonised by unwanted plants. Bare soil can also be eroded or can become less fertile over time. In order to preserve and even enhance a soil ecosystem, we can plant cover crops as part of crop rotation systems – this is as true in a domestic garden as it is on a farm. Here are five useful cover crops to improve soil in growing areas:

Field peas cover cropAnnual Legumes

Legumes have bacteria in root rhisomes which fix atmospheric nitrogen from the air and make it available within the soil. A number of nitrogen fixing plants are suitable for cover crops. Clovers can be useful as summer cover crops in a cool climate – including berseem clover, a summer annual, which establishes quickly and easily and develops a thick ground cover which is excellent for suppressing weeds. Another option are field peas, which are a summer annual in cooler climates. Broad beans can also be planted as a nitrogen fixing cover crop in summer or sown in autumn for overwintering.

CloverPerennial Legumes

Red clover is a perennial cover crop choice which is vigorous and shade tolerant. White clover is also a good shade-tolerant choice for underneath trees in an orchard setting, for example. Red and white clover can provide nitrogen fixing winter ground cover.

RyeRye or Other Grasses

Winter rye or annual ryegrass are both common grasses used for ground cover. Grasses can quickly cover an area and provide a large amount of biomass which can be chopped and dropped to increase the organic matter content of the soil.


Buckwheat is a summer annual easily killed by frost. It can be a good choice for cover crops in low-fertility soils as it will grow more readily in less than ideal soil conditions. It grows quickly and can reach its flowering stage within as few as six weeks from sowing. It has also been reported to suppress some root pathogens. Mow or chop and drop it before seeds set.

MustardMustard or Other Brassicas

Brassicas such as swift growing mustard are also often used as cover crops in rotation with other plants such as potatoes or fruit trees. Brassicas can act as biofumigants, suppressing a number of soil pests, though the full range of beneficial interactions are not yet fully understood. Again, when not killed off by winter weather, these cover crops should be chopped and dropped before they set seed.