We’ve probably all been excited about an idea and put it into action before we really knew what we were getting into.
This human tendency is one of the main reasons that gardeners can experience a different outcome with cover crops than what they desire.
A new reader, Luke,recently wrote to me and seems to be experiencing this very thing.
Last fall we seeded our entire 500 sq ft garden with dutch white clover. —- it’ s (now) too thick to hoe, rake down or up, etc.
I would prefer not to use any machinery to cut it back so it will die, but our first experiment of picking it all by hand to try and stress it out so it would die back did not work.
Do you have any good suggestions for naturally killing this cover crop? My only current fallback options are to lay plastic over it (I don’t like plastic) or cut it with my weed eater (would rather not use machinery) and of course I don’t want to use any chemicals!
What’s Needed to Avoid Problems and Be Successful with Cover Crops?
In order for cover crops to be successful (by your definition of what you want to achieve) in YOUR garden, you need to do your homework BEFORE you plant. Even then, you have to accept the fact that you’re not going to know exactly how things will go until you have some hands-on experience growing that particular cover crop.
Each cover crop has certain characteristics and if you can plan your strategy around those characteristics you’ll be good to go.
It’s Always Best to Start Small with a Cover Crop You’ve Had No Experience Growing.
Luke planted his entire garden in white clover. Five Hundred square feet is a lot of area to plant with any cover crop that you’ve not grown before; especially a perennial (lasting indefinitely) crop that can keep coming back from year to year.
It doesn’t have to return each year, but being perennial, it can.
My Experiences with White Clover
I’ve had it growing as an outside border for a island flower bed and had it disappear the second year never to return.
Last year I planted white clover in several paths of my garden. I wanted the living roots of the clover in the path to support mychorhrizal fungi which are so beneficial to plants by greatly extending their reach into the soil to get nutrients.
I’m not sure how aggressive white clover will be in my garden, so I didn’t sow the seed everywhere, just in a few of the paths in order that I could keep a eye on it and see what it does.
I noticed today that some of the seed must have washed into a couple of beds because I found clover growing in the beds rather than the paths. My hand tool helped me remove it in a flash, but I would not want to have been removing 500 sq. feet of it.
Like Luke, I don’t like plastic either and would not use it to kill the plants.
The most important reason not to use it is nature’s principle of air circulation, which is absolutely necessary to good soil health. Soil can’t breath properly with plastic on it, and soil life dies.
That would seem to me to defeat the purpose of organic gardening. So, like Luke, it’s not something I would do.
Use the Problem as an Opportunity to Learn by Trying Several Things
If this 500 sq feet of white clover was mine I would probably try several things. The reason I’d try several is because I’d learn in one season how each works. This would serve me well in the future.
- Leave a 3 foot border of white clover around the 500 sq foot area. The thick clover should keep most of weeds out of the garden and probably out of most of the 3 foot border.
Mark off garden beds and paths for planning purposes.
- In beds where hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cukes and squash will go, leave the clover but dig planting holes into it, as I did with the winter rye stubble. White clover is good for underplanting these crops and acts as a living mulch. ( If you find that the clover dies out, then you’ll need to add more mulch.)
- Use a thick layers of mulch (such as straw, pine tags, aged wood chips) on top of the clover where some of the hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cukes and squash will go. (See if the heavy mulch kills the clover and note how long it takes.) In the meantime, dig planting holes and plant your seedlings.
- Leave the clover in paths to see what happens. Keep an eye out that it doesn’t spread into your beds after you establish them.
- In beds that definitely need to be free of the clover in order that you may plant seed right now AND IF you want to use hand tools: you can dig it out with a shovel, shake the soil from the clump, and turn the clumps upside down and lay on top of a path or a bed to recycle back into the soil. (Just watch to make sure it doesn’t continue to grow after a while.)
If you don’t have time for that, you might want to use machinery this one last time.
Also, keep in mind that clover will reseed. Where you don’t want that, cut it at least by the time it blooms. (Weed eater seems the easiest way.)
Cover crops are great for your garden and easy to work with. Just plan your cover crop strategy to fit your needs AND the characteristics of the cover crop.
By doing a bit of research up front and then starting small, you’ll avoid problems. And if you do have some, they won’t be on a grand scale.
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