Author Ruth Burke
A few weeks ago, we posted a blog article about popular cover crops for market gardeners. This article is a continuation of that theme with an emphasis on the cover crops that are also great pollinator crops! If you’re looking for a pollinator crop that will pull double-duty as a soil builder, smother crop, or nitrogen fixer, then look no further than the crops we highlight here!
Annual Cover Crops that Attract Pollinators
We’ll start with annual cover crops since those are more common than the perennial cover crops. Keep in mind that an annual cover crop (with a few exceptions) won’t come back the following year. Most of the crops I’ve listed here will die on their own with the onset of winter. However, there are a few of them that you’ll want to terminate before they go to seed.
If you’re looking for an annual, nitrogen fixing cover crop (see this article to learn about this), then Crimson Clover, Berseem Clover, Forage Peas, or Sunn Hemp might be just what you’re looking for. They grow delicate, sweet flowers that will attract many kinds of pollinators. As legumes, they do need to be inoculated with a type of bacterial powder that helps them fix nitrogen in the soil. Most of the crops linked here are already pre-inoculated, but Deer Creek Seed Co. does sell inoculant by itself should you ever need it.
(Field pea flowers)
Buckwheat is a lush, annual smother crop that is attractive to pollinators and deer alike. It grows rapidly and matures in as little as 70 days, quickly smothering and shading out other weeds. The small white flowers have a sweet scent that is popular with honey bee farmers. Buckwheat honey is not to be missed!
If you’re searching for a cover crop that acts as a soil biofumigant while also attracting wildlife (including pollinators!), then our mustard species will be right up your alley. Rapeseed and mustard are great cover crops that can suppress disease and pests in the soil while also producing sweet yellow flowers that bees and butterflies just go nuts over! However, these crops do come with a warning: unless you want these mustards to continue coming back, year after year, you will need to terminate them shortly after they begin flowering. You don’t want these guys dropping seed in a field that you intend to use for other crops!
Finally, if you’d like something that grows a beautiful flower, then Sunflowers may be the crop of choice for you. Aggressive and drought tolerant, sunflowers can grow in almost any soil type and they will outcompete even the strongest weeds. They eventually get tall and leafy, shading out the weeds beneath them. Bees absolutely love sunflowers, but the birds (especially doves!) will come around for the seeds in the fall. Of all the annual cover crops that we offer, these are my personal favorite!
Sunflowers deserve a special caveat, however, in that they grow very thick and tall stalks. If you are planting these on a larger acreage, you will need some way to incorporate the residue at the end of the season – or have a small enough plot that you can haul out the stems if need be. If you plan to remove the residue, make sure to let it senesce completely (turn brown and dry) before removing it.
(Dutch white clover flowers)
Perennial Cover Crops that Attract Pollinators
Perennial cover crops are great to use on plots or gardens that you don’t need in production for at least two years. They sequester moisture and nutrients in the soil; they can break pest, disease, and weed cycles; and they can help build soil structure when used over long periods of time (or as part of a diverse rotation cycle). Folks with larger gardens or small, vegetable farms will frequently use them as walkways between production beds.
(Birdsfoot trefoil flowers)
Hands down, the most popular perennial cover crops that also serve double-duty as pollinator crops are our legumes. Like the annual legumes I mentioned previously, these crops fix nitrogen in the soil and they produce sweet flowers that pollinators will be crawling all over. And also just like the annual legumes, they will need to be inoculated prior to planting for the best growth possible.
Probably most well-known are the perennial clovers such as Medium Red, Ladino, New Zealand, Dutch, and Alsike. Alternative perennial legumes include alfalfa, sweet clover, hairy vetch, or birdsfoot trefoil. Species like alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil can handle occasional droughts whereas the white clovers (Dutch, Alsike, Ladino) do great in wetter soils or partly-shaded areas (like on the edges of forests). Hairy vetch spreads aggressively and will shade out any weed competition over time!
(Red clover flowers)
There’s so Many Choices! Can I mix them?
Most of these double-duty pollinator and cover crops do well on their own but can be combined for an even better result. If you’d like to mix and match some of these, you should lower the seeding rate for both (or all) of the varieties you’d like to mix so that they don’t compete with each other and lower the success of growth.
Deer Creek Seed Co. sells all of these species as straight products and you can purchase small amounts of each and mix at home. If you need help deciding which species will do well with each other or how to appropriately lower the seeding rate, feel free to give us a call at our toll-free customer service line (1-877-247-3736) and we’ll happily help you decide on the perfect double-duty pollinator/cover crop for your garden, farm, or food plot.