Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cover your dirt with cover crops

On my trip to Missouri, I visited Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a provider of heirloom vegetable and flower seeds.  After detours because of flooded highways and after several miles of travel down dirt roads, we arrived at the village in Mansfield, Missouri.  It’s set up to resemble an Ozark village, and the company holds bluegrass festivals and other events on the property.  I was mainly interested in the gardens, which were beautiful even though the rains during the summer made some of them inaccessible to visitors. 

In the seed store, I bought some books and seeds, of course.  I have planted some of the fall vegetable seeds already, and I’ll plant some of the cover crop seeds within the next few weeks.    
Seeds for Austrian Winter Peas and Buckwheat.  I'll plant the peas soon and save the Buckwheat for spring

I have begun to take my garden back from the weeds that have invaded this summer.  I put down mulch and sheets of cardboard to hold the cleared soil free of weeds, and I plan to sow cover crops in the bare areas.  Every year I have crops interspersed with bare areas I try to cover with mulch, and these areas usually become patches of weeds.  This year, I’m going to try to put all the crops together in one space and to leave a quadrant of the garden entirely free of cultivated crops and sow it with a cover crop.  This will, I hope, concentrate my weeding efforts and make the process easier.  It may also make putting the chickens in the garden to eat easier because I’ll be able to keep the tasty lettuce away from the plants I want them to eat. 

Iron and Clay cowpeas have gone a bit crazy in the garden


A cover crop is any crop planted 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.  I grow millet in the garden as a cover crop and for chicken feed, and five of my chickens are currently vacationing in the garden and eating the millet as it ripens. 
Using cardboard to hold back the weeds.  Millet in upper right corner
Last winter, I planted mustard greens in the hard area outside the garden; mustard grows thickly enough to choke out most weeds.  I planted Asiatic clover in the orchard, and it provides food for bees, fixes nitrogen in the soil, and is certainly more attractive than the crabgrass that would grow there without the competition from the clover.  This clover is perennial so don’t plant it unless you are sure you want it.

I have grown wheat and oats in the garden, and I’ll plant some this fall.  I allowed the grains to make seed last spring and fed it to the 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.

I tilled some of my rye grass into the soil, and some I mowed.  The summer’s heat kills rye grass, and if you mow it before it makes seed, it won’t return. Even if it makes seed, I haven’t had trouble with it becoming 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, an annual clover.  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.  I purchased some Austrian winter peas at Baker Creek they are similar to English peas in habit and won’t become a weed. 
Clover in the apple orchard as a cover crop

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.  Baker Creek Heirloom SeedsPeaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds  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 grow crops that do not become weeds.

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