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
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.
Labels: clover, cover crops, Johnny's Selected Seeds, oats, Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, wheat