Cover crops – including clover, rye, and other grasses – are on the rise in southern Virginia Beach this fall as some farmers and home gardeners seek to reduce their use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

Cover crops discourage weed growth and enrich the soil, according to farmers Rusty Malbone and Mike Cullipher. They also help to prevent erosion and sometimes attract beneficial insects while repelling parasites.

Virginia Beach Master Gardener Fred Ball also uses cover crops, such as rye, hairy vetch, winter wheat and clover, in his backyard vegetable garden and gardens at the Francis Land House and the Virginia Beach Farmers Market, which are maintained by master gardeners.

“The hairy vetch works with the rye to catch nitrogen from the air and put it into the ground,” said Ball, who lives in Upton Estates. These crops also prevent erosion and provide a home for beneficial insects.

Winter cover crops should be planted at least four weeks before the first frost, Ball said. “They should be well-established by about the first of November.” 

Ball mows the cover crops in the late winter or early spring and lets them decompose into the soil.

“Then throw about half of it into your compost pile and turn the rest back into the soil,” Ball said.  “Then add compost and top soil and wait two weeks to plant.”

Another added benefit of cover crops is no-till planting, said Ball and Malbone, a grain farmer who grows about 250 acres of corn, winter wheat or soybeans just south of Pungo. 

The farmer or gardener can dig and drop seeds into small holes in the decomposed matter without plowing an entire area.

This no-till planting is cheaper than plowing the entire field, Malbone said, because it saves fuel and minimizes the wear and tear on his equipment.  

“There’s also very little soil disturbance,” Malbone said, “because these planters are so good at what they do that the holes are only about two inches wide.”

Cover crops are really nothing new, Malbone and Cullipher said. Some farmers have been experimenting with them for decades. They’re becoming increasingly popular now because research has confirmed what farmers always suspected – they enrich the soil as they decompose.

“My grandfather planted them,” Cullipher said.  “His policy was that he wanted something growing 12 months a year. He knew that this built up the soil, but he didn’t know why.”

Cullipher, who grows and markets produce at Cullipher Farm Market, plants clover in his strawberry fields in the late summer.  In March, he starts to mow it regularly, and he plows it under at the end of strawberry season in early June. Then, he plants Sunn hemp, a legume which grows during the summer.

Sunn hemp produces nitrogen, Cullipher said, while clover scavenges it from the soil and then releases it when it decomposes. Sunn hemp also discourages nematodes, a parasitic worm that attack the roots of plants.

Paitience is key, though. Cullipher and Ball said it takes these organic fertilizers a couple of years to make a major impact on soil fertility.

“In the long run it will enrich the soil,” Ball said.  “And the goal is to use fewer chemicals and be more organic.”

For more information about cover crops, visit the Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture at this link.

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