Top 5 Cover Crops for Your Small Farm

5 cover crops version 2

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

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 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 five of the best cover crops to help improve your soil.

Winter and Cereal Rye

Rye (Secale cereale)
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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.


Buckwheat Field
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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.


Crimson Clover
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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.


field of sorghum
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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.

Hairy Vetch

Vicia cracca. Wild vetch flowers close-up in summer on Yamal
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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 and into May, it can add an incredible amount of fertility to the soil.

View Article Sources
  1. Sarrantonio, Marianne. “Building Soil Fertility and Tilth with Cover Crops.” Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

  2. Cover Crops - Keeping Soil in Place While Providing Other Benefits.” U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  3. Managing Cover Crops Profitably.” Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

  4. White Clover Establishment and Management Guide.” University of Georgia Extension.

  5.  “Sorghum-Sudangrass: A Vigorous Cover Crop.” The University of Vermont.

  6. Cover Crop, Hairy Vetch.” University of Massachusetts Amherst Extension.