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Sunflowers as cover crop, UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

Cover Cropping in Summer

In the Wilting Heat

Many Floridians choose not to grow any edibles during the summer in order to let the garden beds rest.  It is generally a hostile time of year to be doing very much in the landscape anyway.  Often, the area is left without care until the next season’s crops are ready to go into the ground.  However, the plants left in or on the ground from the previous season will still harbor pests that can make vegetable gardening difficult during the next season.  The space can also become overgrown with weeds and drop numerous weed seeds.  Cover cropping will choke out most weeds and can add nutrients and organic matter back into the soil.

beans drying in the garden

Beans drying in the garden as cover crop, UF Photo by Amy Stuart

Cover Cropping

Traditionally, cover cropping  would be done in order to keep the weeds choked out but also to benefit the soil. Bean or pea family cover crops (such as sweet clover or alfalfa) in the vegetable garden can help fix some nitrogen into the soil if their roots are left in place.  Other cover crops could be brassicas such as mustard or arugula.  But to do this, you must pay very close attention to your crop rotation schedule and not use bean family cover crops where you plan for green beans, pole beans, or peas next season.  Likewise, brassica cover crops should not be planted where you plan to plant broccoli and radishes next.

According to the University of Florida’s EDIS publication, “Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide”, Summer crop examples are:

Sunflowers blooming in the garden

Sunflowers used to improve the garden soil, UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.

  • Cowpea
  • Velvet bean
  • Soybean
  • Sunflower

 

a spray of zinnia flowers

Multi-colored Zinnias, UF/IFAS photo: Thomas Wright

I will add to that my flowering favorites:

  • Zinnia
  • Calendula
  • marigold
  • Celosia “Cock’s Comb”,
  • French Marigold
  • Buckwheat, red or white varieties
raised garden bed full of marigold plants used as cover crop

A raised bed full of marigolds as cover crop, Photo by IRC Horticulture Agent Nickie Munroe

Cover Crop with Flowers

Cover cropping with ornamentals or flowering annuals could be a beautiful solution to the situation.  Marigolds have benefits as cover crops in that certain types, primarily French marigolds, help manage nematodes and attract beneficial insects as pest control.  Zinnias, cosmos, coreopsis, and sunflowers will attract pollinators for the summer and are eye candy for me.  “Teddy Bear” sunflowers are especially artful- they look like a Van Gogh painting in a vase on the table.  Flowering buckwheat can improve the soil and supply you with some edible seeds.  Celosia are brilliantly colorful and edible heat loving summer annuals.  Sunflowers also improve the soil and will likewise give you edible seeds if you plant the Mammoth variety.

Cover Cropping to improve the soil is going to require leaving at least some of the roots in the garden.  The marigolds, above, will be cut off at soil level a few weeks before replanting the bed for fall.  As those cover crop roots decompose, they add nutrients and their volatile oils back into the soil along with organic matter for added moisture retention.

My Rx for a Summer Soil Fix

Here’s what I did:

  1. Remove all previous plants.
  2. Even out the soil surface.
  3. Sprinkle cover crop seeds over the soil.
  4. Water every day till they germinate.
  5. Scout for unwanted weeds and pull those as needed.

Cover cropping in the summer can not only help increase soil fertility and texture, help block weeds and reduce pests. It can reduce your hours spent maintaining your garden in the hot and humid days as well as the hours spent in the fall for start-up for the coming season. For more information, see the University of Florida’s publication: “Benefits of Cover Crops for Soil Health”:  https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag277  so for less stress gardening, cover crop and carry on!