Readers who write to me about cover crops are sometimes under the impression that to use them they need heavy duty equipment.
That impression might come from articles and videos that show farmers on tractors tilling under various cover crops.
It can also come from a gardener using a crop like winter rye without knowing ahead of time how to deal with it. They’ve not planned a strategy that takes into account how difficult winter rye would be to turn into the soil without power tools.
Fortunately, we can use most all cover crops to improve the soil in our home gardens without the need for heavy equipment. With the right strategy, a hand sickle and/or your other favorite hand tool is all you’ll need.
Know the Characteristics of the Cover Crop
You do have to educate yourself on the characteristics of the cover crop. Once you know that, you can work out a plan that gives you the benefits of the crop with minimum effort.
Example of a Farmer’s Strategy You Can Adapt
Here’s an example of a strategy a farmer might use. Altering it slightly will make it easy to use in your garden.
*The farmer might plant a field in buckwheat.
He might have decided on buckwheat because it can take insoluble rock forms of phosphorous and turn them into soluble forms that vegetables can absorb. It also scavenges calcium and other minor nutrients.
*Whenever the farmer’s strategy dictates, he plows the cover crop into his soil.
*After that he’ll plant another crop like rye which will hold in its green growth all the good stuff the first cover crop put into the soil.
*In the early spring the farmer might till under the rye which will slowly break down and return all those nutrients to the soil for use by whatever crop will follow.
Adapting the Above Strategy for the Home Garden
Here’s how I’m going to adapt that strategy for various beds in my garden this year.
- This week I’ll plant buckwheat in a few garden beds. With a bit of rain, the buckwheat should germinate quickly (4 to 5 days) and be ready to flower in about 6 weeks.
My garden beds are permanent and have not been tilled in the 18 years since they were first prepared. I just pull back the mulch and plant.
- With hedge shears I’ll cut it to ground level before it makes seed.
(I don’t use my hand sickle to cut buckwheat because it comes out of the ground too easily when you grab a handful to cut. )
- I’ll leave the roots in the ground and scatter the cut biomass evenly over the bed.
At the end of October or into November:
- I’ll sow seed of winter rye. It should come up just fine through the buckwheat roots and cuttings.
Next spring I’ll let the rye grow until the pollen hangs on the seed heads. That’s usually the last part of May in my area.
- Then I’ll cut it (with my hand sickle) and lay the cuttings on top of the bed.
It’ll then be the perfect time to transplant warm weather crops.
- Using a hand tool I’ll dig a few holes in the rye stubble for transplants like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cukes, or squash.
The stubble will decay by early or mid- summer. (You can add more mulch to the bed either before or after that happens.)
In this strategy, how the soil receives the benefits has been adjusted.
Rather than turning under the cover crops, I’ll let the soil life incorporate them for me.
However, I feel confident the benefits will be about the same. but with very little effort and a couple of hand tools.
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