A Sustainable Way to Protect Vegetables: Cover Crops

Growers mow then disc rapeseed to incorporate it into the soil. Source: G. Abawi, Cornell University

If you are a vegetable grower, you may spend a fair amount of time thinking about production yield. In studies conducted at Cornell University, researchers are finding that sustainable protection may be equally important. Cover crops have a role in both raising production yield and sustainably protecting cash crops.

Growers who use cover crops not only can improve soil health, but also protect vegetables from soilborne pathogens. These findings come from a study funded by the Northeastern IPM Center and led by George Abawi of Cornell.

Abawi and his team began work on the project in 2008 when they planted eight acres of snap beans in Geneva, New York. They studied eight types of cover crops—plants grown to enrich and protect the soil: winter rye grain and hairy vetch, oat, sudex, forage radish, red clover, rapeseed, buckwheat, and Jensen wheat. They also tested a fallow control. They compared four cropping systems: future IPM, present IPM, organic, and conventional. The researchers followed commercial production guidelines for IPM, organic, and conventional systems. According to Abawi’s research team, “future IPM” is a cropping system based on present IPM and the use of rotational and cover crops.

Cover crop story

“Through our project, growers and industry personnel are learning more about the general benefits of cover crops on root diseases, weeds, soil fertility, and the factors that contribute to overall soil health,” Abawi said.

Rye/vetch, wheat, and rapeseed provided the highest biomass in all production systems and during all seasons. Clover, oats, and buckwheat also provided considerable biomass gains. The highest marketable yield of snap bean was grown in the field managed as the future IPM production system. This field also had the highest soil quality level and the lowest ratings for root rot severity. The conventionally managed field had the lowest soil quality and the highest root rot ratings. The lowest bean yields were generally in the buckwheat and fallow fields.

Root effects

In Connecticut, scientists grew snap beans in plots infested with nematodes and soilborne fungal pathogens. They then tested how various cover crops protected the cash crop.

The highest shoot and root weights resulted after a cover crop of forage radish and rapeseed. Also, beans grown after radish, rapeseed, sorghosudangrass and millet had the lowest root rot ratings. Highest shoot, root and bean yield were again obtained after forage radish and rapeseed. Pearl millet also resulted in increased bean growth and yield.

In Pennsylvania, researchers located four fields with a history of significant root disease pressure. They set up plots, half with and half without a cover crop. Scientists found a reduction in soilborne pathogens in rye and rapeseed cover crop fields. Root health ratings also improved.

Preventing weeds and diseases

Researchers documented the prevalent root disease pathogens Fusarium solani f. sp. phaseoli, Pythium ultimum, Thielaviopsis basicola, and Rhizoctonia solani in study plots. Surprisingly, a cover crop of buckwheat or clover increased root rot severity in snap beans, similar to the fallow check. The lowest accumulated increases of root rot occurred in the cover crop plots of wheat, sudex, oat, and radish. Wheat appeared to be most effective against root rot in the organic production field.

Weed pressure was least in the rye/vetch, wheat, and rapeseed plots, and most severe in the fallow/check, buckwheat, and sudex plots.

In terms of soil health, the highest active carbon values were found in the organic and future IPM system fields. Specifically, rye/vetch, radish, and oats yielded the highest active carbon values in the organic system. Not surprisingly, the lowest values were in the fallow/check plots. Organic matter was highest in the organic and future IPM systems fields.

Show on the road

Over three years, the researchers presented at nine farm expositions with hundreds of participants. They also published six research papers.

“Although cover crop ratings may change as more data is collected, a pattern is emerging,” said Abawi. “Cover crops have indeed become a major tool for the management of soil health.”

He hopes to soon make recommendations for cover crops that could be used to manage certain soil health conditions and root disease pathogens.



The Northeastern IPM Center promotes integrated pest management for reducing risks to human health and the environment. If republishing our news, please acknowledge the source (“From Northeast IPM Insights”) along with a link to our website.