The few rains we had at the end of July — although brief — were just enough to get some cover crops started in various beds in my garden.
Cover crops have so many uses. They’re an easy and economical way to improve your soil. And now that so many spring/early summer crops are done, it’s a great way to revitalize the soil before fall crops are planted.
It’s one step to helping the soil regain nutrient balance when crops come out of a bed.
Cover crops can
- help break up hard ground and “open” new ground for your garden. (Yellow clove and rye are especially good for this.)
- bring up minerals from deep in the soil with their long tap roots (not all have long tap roots — oil seed radish is one that does)
- as they grow they store soil nutrients; as they decay they release nutrients making them available for use by your garden plants
- help control erosion if it’s a problem
- cover the soil and protect it from sun, wind, and beating rain
- be cut and used as mulch for the next crop
- smother out weeds (sow densely if this is your purpose)
- improve soil fertility and structure when they grow AND when your cut them, till them in or leave them as mulch to eventually revert to organic matter
- and even help keep beneficial insects and pollinators in your garden.
The organic matter these crops make — is as close as you’ll come to a magic elixir for your garden. It is the food of the soil. As the microorganisms in the soil break down the organic material into organic matter, the nutrients released (recylced) back into the soil will be ready to be used by the next crop.
And the soil structure that the organic matters builds
- increases water absorption
- increases the capacity to hold the nutrients.
- Buffers the soil ph -(In other words it makes it just right for most plants – not to acid not too alkaline.)
(Remember this last point when you hear the long promoted saying that pine needles and oak leaves make the soil acid. They DO NOT. Organic matter over a period of time (a year or so) will change the ph to almost neutral. For example -my soil is about 6.7. And it stays that way because of the organic matter.)
I like to use buckwheat in midsummer because it grows quickly and blossoms within about 7 weeks. It attracts beneficial insects and bees. It’s very easy to cut, pull or turn into the soil.
More than likely I’ll plant lettuce for the fall and winter into the beds that have buckwheat in them now.
Sow buckwheat generously to get good coverage.
Out of 4 rows of potatoes I’ve harvest about 1 1/2 rows. I planted oilseed radish in the empty beds. I like them after potatoes because they have an extra long taproot that is said to draw up nutrients for the next crop.
I’ve handled this crop several ways:
- I’ve turned it under before winter,
- I’ve pulled it up, covered it with straw and let it decay over the winter. (My favorite way.)
You could let them stay in the ground all winter and turn under in the spring. It would take a while for them to decay though and you’d have to delay your planting or plan accordingly.
Voles, Potatoes, and Oil seed Radishes
The voles are enjoying my Kennebec potatoes still in the ground. I’m starting to trap to get the numbers down so I can still be eating potatoes in a few months. When the oilseed radishes develop — they’ll like those too. AND I will have an opportunity to trap the voles I missed earlier.
Thinking of Using Hairy Vetch for a Cover Crop? You might want to rethink it.
Hairy Vetch is highly promoted as a great cover crop especially before planting tomatoes. You might want to rethink this one long and hard before you fall for the hype of how great it is and be warned about what a nuisance it is. (There are plenty of other great cover crops that are just as good before tomatoes. Field Peas for example.)
Yes — Hairy Vetch does good things for the soil — but it’s a nuisance! I planted Hairy Vetch more than 25 years ago at my previous garden. I have never planted it since then. After 25 years spring growth is still rampant (even in our new location!) and I pull lots and lots of Hairy Vetch EVERY spring. It came over in soil with other plants when we moved here 14 years ago.
There is never enough time to get it all and it keeps reseeding. It’s pretty when it blooming; ugly after it seeds and dries. Looks like weeds in your other stuff. It’s difficult to deal with because of its vining habit.
If cover crops are new to you — pick an easy one like Buckwheat and incorporate it into your garden plan. It’s easy once you get started and your garden will benefit tremendously.
I’ll be talking a lot more about using cover crops for possible disease prevention in future posts.
Organic gardening is easy, effective, efficient —- and it’s a lot healthier.
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