One of the major recent movements in production agriculture has been the widespread adoption of cover crops. This practice gives farmers a host of benefits, from erosion prevention to nutrient retention and recycling. However, using cover crops isn’t just for large scale farming operations. Hobby vegetable gardeners can absolutely employ similar systems on a smaller scale to reap the same benefits. For the past two years, I’ve used Buckwheat to provide a soil building cover during the heat of summer between spring and fall gardens. This winter, after my fall greens garden succumbed to frost, I decided to employ the same tactic with a mix of Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), White Clover (Trifolium Repens), and Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum) to enhance my soil during the coldest months until spring tomato planting arrives!
While there are many different species of plants (rye, oats, wheat, various brassicas, etc.) that can be planted in November or December as cool season covers to deliver benefits like winter weed suppression, enhance soil organic matter, retain and harvest leftover nutrients, and provide habitat for beneficial insects, I chose Clover for an additional reason. In addition to the above benefits, Clover is a legume and also fixes atmospheric nitrogen, making it available for subsequent plantings! Not only is Clover an excellent soil cover, but it also provides some nitrogen fertilizer to the following vegetable garden!
Growing Clover, while not quite as simple as Buckwheat or small grain covers like oats and rye, is relatively easy for most gardeners. The first step is selecting which clover species and/or variety to grow. I chose a mix of Crimson, White, and Red Clover simply because I had several pounds of each left over from a previous field planting. However, any one of the three may be used by themselves or in various combinations. All are excellent choices for garden cover crops and have similar growing requirements. Crimson Clover is the most readily available, but all three species can be found at most farm and garden supply stores.
The next step is to prep your garden beds for clover seeding. I thoroughly remove weeds from my raised beds, lightly till the top couple of inches of soil, and rake to provide a level surface. Since clover seed is tiny, a smooth, clean seedbed is a must for excellent germination. Once this is done, your next should determine how much seed to plant. Recommended clover seeding rates are usually given on a per acre basis and range from 3-4 lbs/acre (White Clover) to 20-25 lbs/acre (Crimson Clover). Given these seeding rates, planting in a 4’x8’ (32 ft2) raised bed is only going to require a miniscule amount of seed.
To ensure a good stand while minimizing risk of overplanting, I mix equal parts clover seed and either sand, vermiculite, or other media similar in size to clover seed and hand scatter over the surface of my beds, making sure to uniformly cover the entire bed. If you think the stand is too thick, you can always hand-thin after emergence.
As a group, clovers prefer moist soil that is not allowed to dry out completely. This isn’t usually a problem given the Panhandle’s frequent rainy cold fronts in winter, but if rainfall is inconsistent, some irrigation will be required. Supplemental fertilizer isn’t normally necessary when planting a clover cover in vegetable gardens because nutrients remaining from the previous veggie crops are usually sufficient for growth and development (N especially is not needed as legumes produce their own through N fixation). 2-3 weeks before you’re ready to plant your spring veggies, chop the clover cover into the top few inches of your bed to terminate it and release its nutrients back into the garden. It’s that easy!
Planting a winter legume cover crop like clover is a great way to harness the benefits of cover crops for your spring veggies and enhance the aesthetics of your otherwise barren and drab garden beds! For more information about growing winter cover crops or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office. Happy Gardening!