15 Cover Crops That Can Double as a Pollinator Patch
Are you looking for a cover crop that also attracts beneficial pollinators to your yard? In this article, gardening expert Jenna Rich explores 15 different cover crops that can double as a pollinator patch, grown alone or mixed together with others.
What’s more impressive than a cover crop helping revitalize your soil below the surface but also looking gorgeous and attracting native pollinators above the soil?
Here I’ll go into 15 cover crops you can start using this season that can double as a pollinator patch. I promise you’ll want to try some of these when you learn about the benefits!
Scientific Name: Fagopyrum esculentum
Appearance: Dense, tiny, white clusters of sepals with no petals, arrowhead-shaped leaves, sometimes blooms pink or yellow. Plants average 2-4 ft tall, depending on the time of year sown.
Seeding rate: 70-80 lbs/acre if broadcasting; 55-65 lbs/acre if drilled in
Core benefits: Abundant nectar make this a favorite among pollinators
This is one of our favorite cover crops, and it’s our go-to each summer if we have an empty bed or field that needs to be covered and used again soon.
Buckwheat is perfect for a small-scale, low or no-till farm or homestead because it flowers quickly and can be mowed, rolled, or crimped for easy termination. Planting can happen quickly after.
Many farmers use buckwheat as pollinator strips near brassicas to control aphids or near a crop like tomatoes that need lots of pollination because buckwheat attracts tons of them.
Buckwheat can tolerate many types of poor soil, including muck, clay, and sand, making it a great option for newly opened growing areas and perfect to use as green manure.
The term “green manure” refers to a quick crop grown to suppress weeds and help with soil erosion, but that is also beneficial when turned back into the soil when it’s still green, improving soil structure and adding nutrients.
Its residue breaks down easily and quickly, and if it happens to pop up in your garden beds, it doesn’t put up much of a fight when gently pulled up. It will be killed in even a light frost, so this crop is most common for in-season cover cropping. Germination is best when the soil is at 70°.
Common buckwheat flowers around the 30-day mark from sowing can be terminated at this point or allowed to continue flowering through several rounds, making it a continuous food supply for pollinators.
Bonus: Buckwheat converts phosphorus into an available form for the next round of crops.
Scientific Name: Phacelia tanacetifolia
Appearance: 1-3 feet tall at peak maturity, lovely blue, lacey flower with a fiddlehead-shaped head with hairy protrusions
Seeding rate: 3 ounces/1000 square feet or 7 pounds/acre. Light is needed for germination so sow atop the soil surface.
Core benefits: An amazing pollinator attractant and improves soil conditions like no other
Phacelia is a quick-growing native annual wildflower that is a small-but-mighty workhorse. This funky little flower is one of the most powerful cover crops. First, it comes in second only to the amazing buckwheat in terms of the literal buzz surrounding the patches of it. Bees love this stuff!
Secondly, it has the amazing ability to absorb excess nitrates and calcium from the soil. It’s also a star student at weed suppression, can grow in rocky or sandy soils, and does not require much moisture to succeed.
This annual germinates best at 60-70° and will winter kill at around 20°. It will reseed itself if not deadheaded, so it can be used as a long-term cover crop if needed.
Warning: Phacelia can cause skin irritation similar to poison oak or poison ivy in people with sensitive skin.
Red (or Purple) Clover
Scientific Name: Trifolium pratense
Appearance: 50-60 purple, sometimes pinkish leaflets in a small, oblong flower head, white base. Each stem has three leaves and each leaf has a white “V”, making it easy to identify.
Seeding rate: 6-18 lbs/acre
Core benefits: Great in rotation between non-leguminous crops, can be sown before the last frost, and adds lots of nitrogen to the soil for the next crop in rotation.
This purple, not red, flower pops up in lawns and along highways across America, so you’ve likely seen it, and if you have, you’ve likely seen bumble bees bouncing around from flower to flower. It grows quickly, is highly adaptable, and provides great ground coverage when terminated and used as green manure.
The Michigan State University Extension Cover Crops Program indicates that not oversowing red clover is key to its success and that a uniform, consistent stand is important to see the full benefits of using it as a cover crop. A 12 lbs/acre seeding rate seemed to produce the most consistent stand.
Red clover should not be used in a high weed pressure field because it does not hold up well against established weeds. However, it can help fight back grass and broadleaf weeds.
Note that Red Clover will become a weed if not terminated after its purpose has been served. Learn more about using clover as a cover crop here.
Scientific Name: Trifolium repens L.
Appearance: 50-60 white or off-white leaflets in a small, roundish flower head, smaller than the red clover. Each stem has three leaves and each leaf has a white “V”, making it easy to identify.
Seeding rate: 2 lbs/acre, moist areas will germinate best.
Core benefits: Thick root systems breaks up and prevent soil compaction
Honeybees love white clover, and they are its most important pollinator. Cross-pollination often occurs, sometimes giving the flowers a pinkish hue.
White clover can be used as a living mulch or in pathways in farms and gardens, so long as you manage it appropriately to keep it from competing with your cash crops. This can also be used as a lawn replacement as it is very resilient and can withstand high-traffic areas.
Its strong root system will help prevent soil erosion and help nutrients stay in place. This makes it a good crop to plant as a winter cover in the fall. While it will die back in the winter, particularly under snow, the roots continue anchoring the soil.
Scientific Name: Trifolium incarnatum
Appearance: Upright stems, dense and hairy deep red cylindrical rosettes featuring short sepals. Can be differentiated from other clovers by their lack of the white “V” on the heart-shaped leaves. Can be 1-3 ft tall.
Seeding rate: 12-20 lbs/acre at ¼ – ½ inch depth. If broadcasting, disk in to bury seeds. Use on the higher amount of seeds if temperatures are higher, and on the lower side if temperatures are lower.
Core benefits: Tolerates shade, grows quickly even in cold weather, and increases organic matter in the soil.
Crimson clover has become extremely popular among beekeepers, and honeybees remain their main source of pollination, although wind and rain account for around 15%. The flower sepals are shorter than other clovers, making them the perfect size for a honeybee’s tongue. The result is light and lovely flavored honey.
This flower provides great early nectar for bees, blooming from April to June. It can then be terminated and used as green manure, as its debris will add nitrogen to the soil. If left to grow through the fall, it is a good food source for forages such as wild turkeys and deer.
Crimson clover germinates best when temperatures are consistently cooler, around and preferably below 60°, but not cold.
It prefers well-draining loam but will tolerate other types of well-draining soils. It can often be found in cover crop mixes alongside rye, oats, and vetches. Like white clover, this makes an excellent cover for the winter season under snow.
Scientific Name: Lupinus
Appearance: Compact, upright, tight spire flowers ranging from gem tons of violet to bright pink to yellow and white. Flowers bloom starting at the bottom near the compound leaves.
Seeding rate: 50 lbs/acre, no deeper than 1 inch
Core benefits: Improves soil
Lupine is gaining popularity among farmers as a winter cover crop due to its resiliency and ability to survive winters. The early spring blooms serve as an attractant for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects, and their striking colors add beauty to the landscape to boot.
Its name comes from the Latin word wolf, and it was once mistakenly believed that it sucked up all the soil nutrients for itself. We now know that it actually provides nitrogen to the soil (like other pea family members), giving it the ability to serve as a beautiful cover crop. The original lupine plants were annuals but have now been bred into hybrids that grow as perennials.
You’ll often see lupine blooming on the sides of highways and along roadsides in full-sun areas, as their long taproot also helps with soil erosion.
If you can stand cutting them down in autumn, they add great amounts of biomass as green manure. Otherwise, cut them back, clean up the area before winter, and they’ll bloom again next fall.
Scientific Name: Vicia villosa
Appearance: Tubular purple flowers, slender green leaves, vining arms with tendrils. Can vine out up to 12 feet and tends to creep and wrap around surrounding items or crops. Plants can become three feet tall.
Seeding rate: 15-20 lbs/acre when drilled at 1-1 ½ inches; 20-30 lbs/acre when broadcast and lightly disced. Inoculant is recommended.
Core benefits: Heavy Nitrogen fixation, low maintenance, pretty
Hairy vetch is often used in pollinator cover crop mixes on large scales, adding much beautification to a field. But don’t be fooled by its looks; hairy vetch is a workhorse! Its cold tolerance makes it a popular choice in cooler growing zones in the spring, sometimes before a sweet corn planting. The vetch does just fine in cool temperatures, surviving to 30° while suppressing weeds for upcoming plantings.
It will germinate best in temperatures between 60°-70°, is not picky about the soil type it’s grown in or the amount of rainfall it receives, and does not have fertilizer requirements, making it an easy cover crop pick for many gardeners. It self-seeds, so be aware of where it popped up in the spring. The vines of hairy vetch can easily choke out other crops as they creep and climb up them. You can prune these to keep the vines down.
Thanks to its cool temperature tolerance, hairy vetch serves as a food source for bumblebees, honeybees, and many other beneficial insects early in the spring and late into the fall.
Scientific Name: Sinapis alba
Appearance: Ranges from lobed to frilly, to smooth and flat leaves. When in flower, it has tall shoots featuring bright yellow flowers which feature four small petals and six stamens. The term “cruciferous” refers to the cross-like shape the center of the flower forms.
Seeding rate: 15-20 lbs/acre
Core benefits: Loosens soil compaction, prevents erosion, and suppresses weeds. High levels of glucosinolates.
Yellow mustard may seem odd for a cover crop, but its low maintenance requirements and quick growth make it an easy choice for backyard growers. When fall-sown after summer crops, you’ll have mustard seed in just a few weeks! You can easily cut it back or mow it before it flowers if you do not want the seeds in your garden. Mustard easily self-seeds.
If grown in the spring, yellow mustard can serve as a mulch for your subsequent crops. If using a no-till system, simply mow or cut back the stalks, cover it with a silage tarp for a week or two, and then incorporate the debris back into the soil. Due to the high levels of glucosinolates in yellow mustard, it is believed to help fight off soil-borne pathogens when its debris breaks down.
Yellow mustard will thrive in cooler temperatures, so try this as a fall cover crop for best results and peak performance. This will also provide bees with much-needed food before the winter. They love the bright yellow flowers!
Scientific Name: Raphanus sativus var. Longipinnatus
Appearance: White to off-white, long and slender root bodies, green tops. The average length is 16” and the average diameter of 2 ½ inches.
Seeding rate: 10-13 lbs/acre drilled. Broadcasting is not recommended unless the soil is too wet to drill.
Core benefits: Cold hardy, long taproot that breaks up compaction
Daikon radish will alleviate compaction issues with its extra-long taproot. This type of radish is best for a no-till system where new land is opened up for growing; let nature do the tilling for you. This process is called “bio-tillage.” Plant daikon radishes in the fall, about 4-8 weeks before your last frost. You want to give them enough time to grow a nice canopy of greens to keep weeds down and be well-established before winter. The weed suppression and debris covering the ground may increase soil temperatures, allowing for earlier spring planting.
Pro tip: Leave the radishes in the ground and allow them to decompose. You’ll be left with lovely little aerated holes in the soil. The radishes will have been eaten by worms and other microbial activity, improving soil health.
Daikon radishes are thought to uptake excess nitrogen left behind in the soil from previous crops. When the debris starts to decompose and absorb back into the soil, your need to fertilize may decrease because those nutrients are being released.
Did you know? Bees are responsible for about 85% of radish pollination. Honeybees make “radish” honey perfect for fall and wintertime cooking. The honey offers a sweet and light flavor. It’s not spicy like some radishes are, and it may leave a dry feeling in your mouth.
Scientific Name: Lobularia maritima
Appearance: Small white clusters of tiny flowers, stays low to the ground, has in a creeping growth habit, 2-4” tall
Seeding rate: 2 lbs/acre
Core benefits: Great pollinator attractant, ground cover, and looks and smells sweet!
Unsurprisingly, beneficial predatory wasps are attracted to sweet alyssum because the scent is very alluring and lovely. It can withstand partial or full sun and thrives when there is excess moisture in the soil. It also requires little to no maintenance.
Due to its ability to cascade over the soil surface and creep around other crops, sweet alyssum makes a great companion plant and an efficient cover crop. The tiny flower is praised for its ability to suppress weeds as well as attract predatory wasps in abundance. These wasps feed on caterpillars and aphids, so plant them near or around brassicas, tomatoes, and carrots.
You can direct sow this flower and expect it to germinate in about five days after laying on the soil’s surface. After your crops have reaped the benefits, sweet alyssum is easy to hoe out, compost, or till under. As green manure, it provides a nice amount of carbon and organic matter.
Pro tip: Do not follow with another brassica for pest control and soil health.
Scientific Name: Helianthus annuus
Appearance: Happy, symmetrical flowers, usually big-headed flowers with brown or pale centers with deep, golden petals, but range in colors, shapes, and sizes. Can range from 1-15 feet tall.
Seeding rate: 3 lbs/1000 square feet; 15 lbs/acre if broadcast
Core benefits: Attract pollinators and native birds. Can help break up hardpan or compacted soil with their strong and long taproot.
You may have driven through rural parts of the states and seen fields of sunflowers and thought the landowner just really loved sunflowers. While this may be true, they are more likely to use sunflowers as a beneficial cover crop that also looks beautiful. Sunflowers are undoubtedly one of the prettiest cover crops for pollinators.
The bulky stalks of sunflowers help tremendously with soil erosion. Most varieties are drought-resistant thanks to their thick stalks that can reach deep down for water. They are also mostly disease-resistant, although some powdery mildew can rear its ugly head.
As a bonus, after the flower is spent and the sunflower head starts to fade, the sunflower seeds finish forming. Yep, the kind you see at the grocery store! They become available as food to birds, other critters, and humans.
Scientific Name: Vigna unguiculata
Appearance: Varieties vary from short and bushy to tall and vining. Trifolate leaves alternate on vines. Clusters of bright purple flowers form at the end of the flower’s stalk.
Seeding rate: 50-60 lbs/acre if drilled and inoculant used; 60-75 lbs/acre if broadcast, but this method is not recommended unless immediate and even moisture can be provided.
Core benefits: Heat and drought-tolerant, long taproots help control erosion.
Cowpeas have been grown as a cover crop in southern states for quite some time due mainly to their heat and drought tolerance, good biomass yields that shade out weed germination, and their ability to thrive in less-than-optimal soil conditions. They germinate best at a consistent soil temperature of 65°.
In a study performed by SARE in 2021 in North Carolina, cowpeas interplanted with other vegetables increased pollinators by 50%. Vegetable yields also increased no matter what variety of cowpea was used. However, standouts in the trial were Pinkeye Purple Hull and Whippoorwill. Cowpeas have extrafloral nectaries, attracting beneficial wasps, lady beetles, honeybees, and ants.
Researchers concluded that cowpeas are being overlooked as an interplanted option. Planting cowpeas amongst your other cash crops gets you more bang for your buck: more nitrogen fixed in the soil, increased pollinators, and more actual cash (if you sell your veggies).
This allows you to get two marketable crops from the small space. At the same time, you attract more pollinators, which, in turn, will produce higher yields.
Scientific Name: Festuca myuros L.
Appearance: Lush green annual grass
Seeding rate: 10 to 15 lbs/acre if broadcasted, 6 lbs/acre if drilled.
Core benefits: Can improve the permeability of orchard soils
This aggressive, winter annual grass can be grown where soil fertility is less than ideal and is drought-resistant. This grass is used in orchards and vineyards to improve the quality of growing plots.
Fescue is known to “lodge,” so less mowing is required. Lodging is when a crop bends over at ground level.
While fescue alone does not attract many pollinators, it is often used in mixes for bee lawns. It creates a great base for bee mixes, protecting the soil in the winter, traps water and prevents runoff and erosion, and can improve microbial activity.
Scientific Name: Medicago sativa
Appearance: The plant grows up to 36 inches, straight in growth habit. Flowers atop tall stalks are typically purple but sometimes have shades of white or yellow, much-resembling clover, and have trifoliate leaves.
Seeding rate: 12-15 lbs/acre no deeper than ½ inch in heavy soils and ½ inch to an inch in sandy soils
Core benefits: Nitrogen fixer, helps with soil erosion.
Alfalfa is used as a cover crop in every state in America. It has wide adaptability and the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. It’s a legume native to Asia whose name translates to “forage crop,” as it was once used to graze animals.
Now it’s primarily used as a cover crop. Alfalfa’s long taproot helps break up soil compaction and is known for its ability to fix nitrogen.
Fall dormancy refers to how tall the alfalfa variety can get in the fall before the first frost. Choose the right alfalfa dormancy seed depending on your growing zone and whether or not your winters are mild. When planting alfalfa, remember it is not good at competing with weeds when planted in the fall.
Alfalfa serves as a fantastic bee forage. It is believed that deep-rooted plants such as alfalfa continue to supply ample amounts of nectar and pollen when other native plants like goldenrod and various clovers have run out.
Scientific Name: Chamaecrista fasciculata
Appearance: Looks like a mix between a fern and a wildflower; oblong, slender, alternating green leaves and bright yellow, one-inch, five-petaled flowers with red centers. Upright-growing habit to about 2 feet tall.
Seeding rate: 5 lbs/acre drilled
Core benefits: Improves organic matter content
Partridge peas are an amazing nectar source for butterflies and bees alike. Just listen to the buzz as you walk by a patch of it! Many game birds also eat it, so you’ll often see it in food plot seed mixes.
The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) states that partridge peas are a great cover crop option for growers with hot summers, like in Texas, where many stay out of the fields during the hottest months. After fall crops are removed in March or April, partridge peas will help keep the soil covered while farmers rest. Flowers will bloom from April-the first frost.
Bonus: Partridge peas have very little pest or disease pressure.
If you are considering starting a pollinator patch, try some cover crops listed here. Take advantage of their huge benefits to your landscape, the soil, and the local ecosystem.