If you are just joining me I recommend you read the articles that preceded this article. Here are the links:
Many organic gardeners compost. In case you don’t know, ‘to compost’ is to pile up organic material and allow it to totally decay. There’s more to it than that —-but you get the idea. The finished product — called compost — can be added to the soil at any time for the purpose of improving the physical condition of the soil and feeding plants.
When I first started gardening I started composting. I did so for 10 years or more. I never had enough. I stopped composting.
I changed to incorporating kitchen scraps into garden beds that are without crops. If in the growing season all my beds have crops, I put my kitchen scraps into the paths (under the straw or under the soil.) About every other year or so, soil from my paths is shoveled onto the bed so the beds get the benefit of the extra organic matter.
Over the years this has saved me lots of time, not to mention that I don’t have to find room for the compost pile. I have been doing this at least 20 years and I am well pleased with the results of my method.
Try to incorporate cover crops into your garden plan each year. This practice is one of the best for improving organic matter levels in the soil and soil quality.
It would be particularly beneficial if you are preparing a new bed —–let’s say in the fall. After preparation, plant with a cover crop and turn it in at the appropriate time giving it time to decay before planting season. That will give your new bed a boost of organic matter for your first spring crops.
Try different cover crops. For the sake of the principle of diversity, don’t use the same thing over and over. One crop effects the soil differently than another. Rotate cover crops as you would rotate your vegetable crops.
There are some excellent reasons for using cover crops.
1. Cover crops protect the soil from erosion and compaction since they act as a mulch. At the same time they produce more organic material for you to add to your garden. They can be grown in your garden beds when crops are not growing.
2. Roots do things that are vital to your soil and that top growth can’t do. By growing cover crops rather than just adding mulch or incorporating organic material, you get the benefit of all the things roots do for your soil.
- Studies have shown that roots can produce from 2 to 4 times more organic material than the top growth.
- Roots can alter the soil for living organism and supply them with nutrients and compounds that can be used as energy.
- Some cover crops have deep tap roots that bring up nutrients to the top portion of the soil so they can be utilized. They also break up compacted soil layers.
- Various cover crop grasses have fine roots that improve soil texture.
- Roots excrete substances which in turn are used as an energy source by soil life. This helps maintain the food web so that soil organisms are in place to provide next seasons crops with nutrients.
3. Some cover crops such as clover and soybeans fix nitrogen. That means they allow nitrogen in the air to be absorbed by soil bacteria and then released in the soil for use by your next crop.
You will want to try different ones to see what works best for you. Do a little reading on each first.
A few words of warning:
- Hairy vetch – although it is excellent for your soil – can take over if it seeds and can become a problem.
- Be sure you turn under crops at the suggested times.
- Make sure you don’t get a crop that is hard to work with. For example – some roots (like those of winter rye) are hard to turn under if you are not that strong and are doing it by hand and/or without help.
What I use:
I like buckwheat a lot because I can plant it now (summer) in beds that have just produced a crop. From germination to flower is about 6 weeks. Instructions say to till it in, but I usually just pull it out and leave it on top or turn it under with a shovel. If frost kills it before it seeds , I just usually leave it. It will decay by spring.
Oilseed radish is easy. It pulls up nutrients. It will winter kill and turns under easily. If the roots get huge — which sometimes they do — I just pull them up and chop them a bit with my tool and turn under or cover them with straw and let them decay.
Another of my favorites is crimson clover. It fixes nitrogen. It’s very easy to get up or turn under. I have even used it as a mulch crop for my tomatoes.
Cut and paste this web address into your browser to get a good cover crop chart:
Improving soil takes time so you’ll develop patience. If you’re just starting ——you now have the basics to create a great garden. If you’re an experienced gardener I hope my experiences added to yours will increase your success.
Wishing you a great and successful garden now and in future years.