I received a message from Rita who is a member of a forum I frequent. To the best of my knowledge she does not read TMG, but was asking about cover crops.
Wanting to incorporate their use into her garden plans, she writes, “I am getting real confused, which is a disability for me….. so I need help deciding what to do and what to use.”
All of us can certainly relate to that feeling. Anything we want to do, but don’t know much about, disables us to one degree or the other and can limit what we do if we allow it. It can also reduce our chances of success or effectiveness in the doing.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way with cover crops. Although nothing takes the place of the knowledge you gain when actually growing a crop, if we learn the characteristics of the cover crop we choose before we plant, we can plan our strategy around those characteristics.
Since I use only hand tools to tend my garden and borders, and also have trouble standing and walking, my strategies are planned accordingly. They may be totally different than someone who wants to till to incorporate cover crops.
Choosing a Cover Crop to Incorporate into the Soil or Use on Top as a Mulch.
Rita listed this use as her #1 reason for wanting to grow cover crops. She has a wide variety of cover crops to choose from that will accomplish this for her. But in the process of reading about various ones, she finds it confusing about which one might be the best for her situation.
All cover crops can be beneficially incorporated into the soil, and many (if not all) can be cut and used on top as mulch. Growing a variety of cover crops over a period of time will give you the best possible results. Thus, I wouldn’t worry too much about which one will be “best” in that regard.
A Determining Factor Can Help Make the Choice Easier
In order to decide which cover crop to use first, choose another determining factor to help make your choice an easy one.
- How much time you have (before you want to plant your veggie crops) and need (to produce the growth you want from the cover crops) and/or
- what seasonal conditions they need for germination and growth (spring or fall)
can narrow the field and make it easy for you to choose. The main thing is to choose one and try it. You can always try another one.
Some Cover Crops That Can Be Planted in the Spring
According to the Cover Crop Comparison Chart at Johnny’s Select Seed (http://www.johnnyseeds.com/t-covercropchart.aspx)
you can sow small grain cover crops like barley, oats, and wheat in the spring.
Buckwheat is another good one, although the biomass is not as much as from other small grain crops. But it’s such an easy crop to work with that beginners will find it very encouraging. Sow it thickly for the best results and the most biomass.
Consider the legumes, cowpeas and field peas, for spring planting as well.
Any of the above mentioned cover crops can be incorporated into the soil once they’ve attained the growth you want. If you want biomass to cut and use as mulch, let them grow more, but cut them before they set seed. There are two reasons for this:
- Cover crops have the most nutrients just before they set seed.
- Unless you are saving seed for next time, you don’t want them to set seed and drop the seed in your garden.
It’s easy to see the seed forming on cover crops. So just let them grow until you see flowers, heavy pollen, or the seed forming.
Also Take into Consideration How You Will Work with Your Cover Crops
All my cover crops strategies take into consideration that I only use hand tools, rather than power tools.
Thus, if I choose to incorporate a crop into the soil by turning the soil (which I seldom do), I have to be prepared and able to do it with a shovel. Any crops with strong root systems that would be impossible (for me physically) to turn under, are used in a manner that allows them to rot in the ground with no effort on my part. (So easy. And the results are great.)
If I cut biomass (vegetation resulting from growth of the plant), I do it with a hand sickle. I plan my strategies to allow most all cover crop roots to rot in the ground and use the biomass on top as mulch.
A Cover Crop to Use as a Yard Grass?
Another thing Rita wants to do with a cover crops is “to grow (it) as a yard grass that will keep coming back and not be killed in the winter (so she) can cut it and add it to compost and/or mix with leaves to mulch the garden.”
Other than clovers (in particular, white clover) I don’t know of a cover crop that you could grow as or with a yard grass that would thrive 12 months of the year and keep coming back from year to year.
If a gardener has the inclination to experiment in at least a part of their yard, I would think it would be worth experimenting with perennial rye grass. (Keep in mind that I have not grown perennial ryegrass yet. You may want to do your own research before making the decision to try it.) (It’s totally different than the winter rye I use as a cover crop.)
During times in the year that conditions are right for growth of perennial rye (cool weather), Rita could certainly cut it and add those clippings to her compost and mix with leaves to mulch her garden.
Perennial ryegrass is a cool season grass that is tough and traffic tolerant. Because it’s easy and has high disease and insect resistance it’s said to be a leading choice for lawn and athletic covers in cooler areas. It’s sometimes used in addition to a warm season lawn grass, since the rye will be green when the warm season grass is in winter dormancy.
(I’m trying out perennial ryegrass in part of my front yard this year just to see if I can have a green lawn more months of the year. Since it’s said to form a dense sod, I’ll stick to a conservative approach and try it in a small part of the yard until I can see first hand exactly what it will do.)
Want a Cover Crop That Will Give You Lots of Biomass?
If you have a spot in your yard that you can designate to growing biomass you could plant Sorghum-sudangrass. This grass is part of my long-term plan to get away from being dependent on a supplier for my straw.
It grows 5 to 12 feet tall. (You don’t have to wait until it gets that tall to cut it. Let it get 3 or 4 feet and then cut back to 6 inches again.) That can make a lot of organic material for mulch, compost, or whatever you want to use it for. It’s planted in early summer and will continue to grow through frost.
If you’ve been wanting to grow cover crops and haven’t been able to decide which one to grow, I hope this has been of help. The most important thing is to take action and grow one (or more). That’s how you’ll reap the benefits.
Organic Gardening is easy, efficient and effective. And it’s a lot healthier.
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