It seems I’ve always known about cover crops. But I’ve never understood until recently the many ways they could help us take our success in our gardens to a new level.
In spite of previous extensive reading on cover crops, what really made their versatility hit home was an excerpt I read from a book on Biological Farming by Gary F. Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand.
Mr. Zimmer experimented successfully with a way to plant corn in a field continually for 10 years without actually rotating crops!
How many of you who have small gardens and/or small raised beds have trouble rotating your crops? How many of you would like to know Mr. Zimmer’s secret?
Purpose of Rotating Crops
The purpose for rotating crops is diversity.
In most cases insect pests prey on a narrow range of plants. If you continually plant the same plants over and over in the same spot, those insects can get a better foothold. If you practice diversity in your plantings, you have a much better chance at avoiding pest infestations.
The same is true with diseases. Tomatoes make a great example. One of the most suggested practices to avoid tomatoes diseases is to rotate your crops and not plant plants of that family in the same spot for another 3 or 4 years. That’s diversity.
Awakening to the Benefits of Cover Crops
Fortunately, rotating your crops is not the only way to accomplish the goal of diversity.
Mr. Zimmer recognized that increasing the variety of plants in a field would result in a wider diversity of insects and of soil life. No one pest or disease would take over. He accomplished this goal of diversity by interplanting corn and clover. And then planting cereal rye in the fall.
Ten years into the experiment a researcher from the University of Illinois visited the farm. The researcher said he had never seen a field planted continuously with corn for 10 years that didn’t have corn rootworms in it. And he could hardly believe how healthy the stand of corn was.
Mr. Zimmer explained to him that the diversity added by the cover crops is what made the difference. The cycle of insect pests and disease had been broken — and health maintained — because of the diversity of the different plants.
Soil life diversity had been maintained. Nutrients were kept cycling from plants to soil and back to plants. The soil was fed and soil structure improved. Thus, the corn remained healthy.
You don’t have to rotate your crops to get diversity ——- you can get the diversity by adding your cover crops!
My Example of Applying this Idea
I plan to use this very principle to keep my tomatoes healthier next year. It’s adjusted slightly to better fit my needs, but I feel confident it will help get the job done.
- I’ve already prepared several spots for tomatoes next year. I thickly planted buckwheat in the 4 foot wide circles.
- While growing, the buckwheat will pull up minerals and micro-nutrients in the soil. When the buckwheat is about 4 inches high, I’ll turn it under. The young succulent buckwheat will break down quickly and release nutrients back into the soil.
- Then I’ll plant cereal rye. (I should have just enough time here in Virginia for the rye to get a good start before winter.) In May I’ll cut the tall cereal rye when the pollen is heavy — just before it seeds. I’ll allow the roots to stay in the ground except for the center of the circle where the tomato plant will go.
- After cutting the rye, I’ll place that biomass on top of the stubble of roots to act as thick mulch.
- At the appropriate time in May I’ll plant my tomato seedlings.
When the tomatoes are done, I’ll plant another cover crop of my choice.
If you’ve wondered what to do about crop rotation in your small area and/or raised beds, you’ve just been given a great solution. If you act on the information, I think it will take your gardening success to the next level.
Organic gardening is easy, efficient, effective —- and it’s a lot healthier.
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