Enrich Your Soil with Cover Crops

As I clear the summer garden of plants that are past their time, in the areas where I do not have mulch, I am planting cover crops.  As every gardener knows, something is going to grow on bare soil.  If the gardener plants nothing, weeds will take the job, and weeds are better than bare soil.  Weeds prevent soil erosion and enrich the soil when they decompose.  The only problem with weeds is that either they shed thousands of seeds that make more weed plants, or they have invasive roots that make life difficult for the plants you actually want to grow in the garden.

A cover crop is any crop you plant in an otherwise bare section of the garden to enrich the soil or to prevent weeds.  If the gardener tills in the cover crop, soil microbes and worms decompose the crop and enrich the soil.  If the cover crop remains on top of the soil and dies, worms and microbes will come up to consume the crop.  Turning a flock of chickens into the cover crop nourishes the chickens as they eat the crop, helps till in the cover crop, and enriches the soil.

In past years, I have planted canola (rape), and daikon radishes in the hard clay outside my garden so that their thick taproots could break up the soil.  Last winter, I planted rye grass in the orchard area and in the newly cleared land where we cut pine trees.  The color of the rye grass is an excellent indicator of soil fertility: among the apple trees, where the chickens had spent a lot of time and I had added compost to the soil, the grass was thick and dark green.  In the newly cleared area, the grass had trouble growing at all.  The chickens enjoyed eating the rye grass and seed when we turned them in the area.  
Healthy rye grass fertilized by chicken manure

Stunted rye grass in newly cleared area

Inside the garden, I planted wheat and oats in small sections of the garden last fall, and this fall I have planted large areas of the garden in these grains.  I allowed the grains to make seed last spring, which I fed to my chickens.  I cut the grain stalks to the ground, used the straw as mulch, and planted my sweet potatoes among the stubble.  The grain will not grow back during the summer’s heat.

Last year's cover crop of wheat.  The chickens enjoyed the grain!
I tilled some of my rye grass into the soil, and some I mowed.  Heat kills rye grass, and it is an annual, so it will not become a weed.  Rye is one of the easiest cover crops because the inexpensive seed is available in many stores and it germinates quickly. Heat also kills crimson clover, and clover fixes nitrogen in the soil.  One cover crop I do not use is vetch.  Many gardening books recommend using it as a cover crop, and the writers of those books must not have the problems we do with vetch invading the garden as a weed. 

If you plow the garden every spring, using cover crops is easy because you can plow them in and allow them to decompose for a few weeks before you plant.  I do not usually till the soil, so I must plan carefully to avoid having a thick patch of something difficult to remove growing in the place I want to plant my spring vegetables.  However, with some planning, I can mow the cover crop, smother it with mulch, or plant my summer plants along with the cover crop and wait for summer’s heat to kill it. 

Buy seeds for cover crops at local feed stores and garden centers.  Feed stores carry varieties that are successful locally.  Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, at www.groworganic.com and Johnny’s Selected Seeds at www.johnnyseeds.com also carry many cover crop seeds.  Read the seed descriptions carefully so you do not end up with vetch or some other weedy crop; buy locally to help you buy crops that do not become weeds.

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