Sitting down to plan my next year’s permaculture garden and build my food forest, I wondered what crops work best as permaculture cover crops. After doing my research, these are the most productive ground cover plants you should be putting in your permaculture garden or food forest.
The most productive permaculture cover crops are comfrey, kale, purslane, dewberry, oregano, nasturtiums, squash, and sweet potatoes. They provide not only ground cover and build soil, but also provide food, medicine, and habitat in permaculture gardens and food forests.
Typically, cover crops are plants grown primarily to protect and build soil. Common cover crops include ryegrass, crimson clover, oats. However, in permaculture design we seek to get the most value out of every plant that we grow, ensuring that they not only build soil but provide food, habitat, medicine, and enjoyment for the humans and animals that live amounts them.
That’s why I made a unique list of permaculture cover crops that are much better choices than the more common options.
Choosing the Best Permaculture Cover Crop
There are two types of plants you want to consider for ground cover: perennial plants and annual plants.
Perennial plants are the best choice just by the fact that you don’t have to replant them every year. Always keep in mind that a true permaculture green should require little to no maintenance if created correctly.
The only limiting factor about perennials is that we are not used to eating them all the time without the addition of annual plants.
Annual plants are mostly the common vegetables and herbs we have grown up with and are used to. At the end of the day if your soil is performing correctly, it is not that much work to grow the vegetables and herbs you like.
Top 4 Perennial Cover Crops
The top 4 perennial plants that I will describe here are based on 3 criteria, availability, hardiness and usefulness. Keep in mind that there are many more to choose from but a lot of them depend on your climate zone. I am listing the ones that are practical for most climate zones. Here are my picks for the top 4 perennials —
Top 4 Annual Cover Crops
Annual plants are a bit different when it comes to criteria, you only really require two, climate zones and your favorites. There are so many to choose from for almost every climate zone and they are almost all readily available. Here are my top 4 that will grow in almost every zone —
- Sweet Potatoes
Below I’ll go over the benefits of each of these top 8 permaculture cover crops to help you decide which one is right for your garden.
This herbaceous perennial has so many valuable benefits it should be your first pick. Here is a list of the valuable properties of comfrey:
This plant can be bought at any nursery, plants or seeds. You can also order online. If you want to forage it can be found along waterways and ditches. Comfrey grows wild pretty much across the globe.
Thrives in zones 3-9 (based on the USDA climate zones).
The entire plant is edible from the leaves, flowers to the roots, cooked or raw, it is full of nutrition. It contains vitamin A, riboflavin, potassium, manganese and provides a solid dietary fiber which our bodies need. It has wonderful medicinal values which can treat, stomach problems like diarrhea, colitis and ulcers. You can make a tea from the root to help with heavy menstrual cycles, coughs and it can even help treat cancer.
Not only is it useful for the human system it is so beneficial for the soil and other plants. These plants provide a fantastic ground cover underneath your fruit trees. They prevent weeds, the roots are dynamic accumulators (draw valuable minerals from the subsoil) this is probably one of the best living mulches you can have in your permaculture garden.
I could go on and on about the benefits of comfrey but this should be enough information to realize the value. One more little benefit is that, whatever animals you have, love it as well.
This great vegetable can be both a perennial and an annual, your best bet is to plant one of the perennial varieties. Can be grown in all climate zones but prefers the cooler climates if you live in zones 6 to 9 it can even produce over winter with a bit of care, like covering it if there is going to be a frost. Zones 9 and above get a bit trickier so some trial and error might be required.
It can be found again at almost any nursery. You can direct seed it into the soil or grow it quite easily from cuttings. The other great thing is, it grows quickly so you can wait to plant later in the summer.
Kale is a delicious vegetable that can be eaten raw in a salad or cooked as a green or a great addition to soups. The health benefits are numerous, it is an antioxidant, loaded with vitamin C, it great for your bones, can help you lose weight and is a great detox for smoothies.
When the season is over and some of the leaves drop they break down quite easily allowing the beneficial microbes to do their thing, and return nitrogen back to the soil.
A tasty herb which is commonly regarded as a weed but that has all kinds of benefits.
Grows best in climate zones 5–10. Purslane requires very little are and just replenishes itself it grows almost horizontally over the ground so is one of the best ground covers you can have.
This plant can be found and purchased again in a nursery, but it grows wild everywhere in zones 5-10 and can be found in other zones with a little searching. Just dig up a few and plant them the rest it will take care of.
This edible beauty can be eaten raw, added to smoothies or put into any hot dish. It is chalk full or omega 3 fatty acids, which most people are now getting from fish oil at a considerable cost. It also contains vitamins A, B and C. This is a superb addition to a healthy diet. Purslane is a succulent and again a great source of nitrogen for the soil.
Just to add a ground cover that is both sweet and nutritious.
Grows in zones 3–10, but thrives the best in zones 5–10. This is one of the hardier berry plants and will propagate itself requiring almost no maintenance.
You can buy the dewberry plants at your local nursery, online or forage for them in the wild, they grow plentifully across North America and Europe.
The berries are delicious and can be eaten raw, put into healthy smoothies or baked into whatever your favorite dessert is, like a pie or a cobbler. Loaded in vitamins A and C very low calories and supports your immune system. Make this a regular part of your diet.
A great cover plant for the soil, does not require full sun. It does however have some sharp thorns so be careful when working with it.
This delicious herb provides great ground cover, nutrition and deters pests. If taken care in colder zones this will over winter and be considered a perennial.
Grows in climate zones from 3-10. Needs heavy mulch over winter in colder zones.
Can be purchased everywhere, nurseries grocery stores or online.
The leaves are a delicious addition to salads raw and to almost any savory dish cooked.
As a medicine the benefits are too many to list. The main ones are it aids in digestion helps prevent colds and is high in dietary fiber. A great food and powerful medicine.
This is an edible flower which not only adds beauty to your permaculture garden but provides so many other benefits.
They grow best in zones 8–10 and can even be perennials in zones 10–11.
Again can be purchased anywhere by seed or seedling, nurseries, grocery stores or online.
Great in salads or made into a delicious pesto. They are loaded with vitamin C and like Echinacea if used in tea at the onset of a cold it will stop it in its tracks.
Nasturtiums are great at attracting the smaller pest like aphids away from your other crops, the aphids will go for the nasturtiums first you can just pull off the affected leaves or petals and dispose of them without damaging the plant.
So many varieties and a favorite to so many people. This edible beauty is not only a full meal but a great protector of other plants
Squash will grow in zones 3-10 but again you need some protection from frost in the colder zones.
You can buy the seeds anywhere without a problem. Squash is easily grown from seeds.
The beauty can supplement any meal or be the meal itself. Rich in vitamins A, C and E, it is low fat and full of carotenoids like beta carotene.
The broad leaves with their prickly stocks the undersides of their leaves discourage all kinds of pests both insects and smaller mammals like mice or moles.
Another solid feast that provides great ground cover.
As like squash they will grow in zones from 3–10. They are a root vegetable so survive quite well underground in colder climates.
These potatoes are very difficult to grow from seeds so you either have to visit a farmers market for the plants or find the slips (a shoot that grow off the root).
They supply a great ground cover for more delicate vegetables, they grow easy with partial sun and if left in the ground provide top nutrients and help to break up compacted soil.
Now you have a list of my top picks for a permaculture garden ground cover. My choices are only a few of what exist. Decide what you like to eat and what will grow the easiest in your climate zone and start producing the most beneficial ground cover you can for your permaculture garden.
What is a good cover crop for a garden?
Effective and productive garden cover crops including comfrey, kale, purslane, dewberry, oregano, nasturtiums, squash, and sweet potatoes. Although some common commercial cover crops ryegrass, crimson clover, oats.
What is an example of a cover crop?
- Sweet potatoes
- Crimson clover
What are perennial cover crops?
Perennial cover crops are plants that protect and build soil that do not need to be replanted every season. Examples of perennial cover crops include —