Compost Cover Crops crop rotation Disease Control Soil Improvement and/or preparation

Soil Fertility – without Manure or Compost?

A reader (Patricia J) wrote to me recently about various things and mentioned that she lacks some diversity in her compost since she doesn’t have access to good manure.

I had mentioned that very thing in my post about diversity when I said, “The only thing that I don’t have is some good manure free of antibiotics and residual herbicides.  That would be excellent to complete my diversity of plant and animal material —”

Then I Learned about Robert Quinn

Several months after writing the above,  I learned about the practices of Robert Quinn, a very successful large scale organic farmer in Big Sandy, Montana which I found most encouraging.

Mr. Quinn has no large livestock operation nearby to supply healthy manure and the fields there are so big that he considers it impossible to spread compost or manure anyway.

Thus, Mr. Quinn uses neither compost or manure!

He uses green manure and lots of it. (Cover crops used as green manures are not allowed to mature but are usually turned into soil at an earlier stage to increase soil life activity and add fertility.)

Quinn has experimented with clovers, medics (self seeding legumes), peas (field peas), alfalfa and grains. He definitely practices diversity in the use of his cover crops.

He credits past crops of alfalfa for helping to build up soils on the farm.  He plants alfalfa as green manure when testing shows the need for a boost of extra nitrogen to the soil or when the next crop is a crop that will use great amounts of nitrogen.

We Small Home Gardeners Can Also Practice Diversity in Cover Crops

Although this commercial farmer monitors his soil in a way that would not be practical for the home gardener (or at least not for me) — there is no reason we as small gardeners can’t use alfalfa to build our soil as long as we practice diversity with our cover crops (or green manures) and not plant the same one all the time.

The greater your diversity – the wider your range of nutrients and soil life in your soil.

Using a strategy similar to Mr. Quinn’s of cover crop/green manure rotation in our small gardens can bring us the same benefit that this successful organic farmer has had: greater diversity in soil life that helps disrupt insect, disease and weed cycles AND gives a high quality organic crop.


Organic gardening is easy, effective, efficient —- and it’s a lot healthier.


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  • I am in the same situation – I have no access to good manure. I started using cover crops and actually try to use appropriate cover crops as living mulch and try to rotate cover crops. I also bury my kitchen waste in the garden beds and have a cold compost pile going (but that haven’t produced any compost yet). My soil is poor since I just stated gardening, but I am wondering to get the nutrient benefits of cover crops if you have to till them under. I prefer not to disturb the soil and cut the cover crop and use it as mulch, but will the plants get the nutrient benefits of this cover crop for optimum production? I do know that I am already disturbing the soil when I bury my kitchen waste and that bothers me too, but I can not come up with another way and I don’t want to put it on the compost pile. Thank you so much for all the great gardening info.

  • I have been reading about using cover crops for a little while and was wondering where do you buy the seeds for your cover crops? Thanks so much for any help.

  • Sandra — Did you receive the “special 100 letter” I sent out two days ago? Your’s came back to me — along with all 10 letters to AOL addresses. Hope you received it when I resent it.

    You’re definitely on the right track to want to minimize disturbing the soil, but you don’t have to be concerned that burying your kitchen waste will hurt. It won’t. You’re providing food for the soil life and the soil will be just fine with that.

    So glad to hear you are using cover crops as a living mulch and also rotating them. Excellent! Your poor soil will not be poor for long! You’ll see a BIG difference especially by year 3 of gardening. Also by your starting out with cover crops you’ll be light years ahead of someone like myself who came to cover crops late in the game.

    Cover crops can be used to benefit the soil in so many way. If you want to use them as a green manure and get that “young” growth to give a good boost to the soil for the next crop — just incorporate the young cover crop into the first few inches of the soil. The good you are providing will far outweigh any harm you do in disturbing the soil. Balance is the key.

    I pulled buckwheat (about 8 inches tall) the other day to use as a green manure before my garlic that I plan to plant in October. I laid the buckwheat — root and all on top of the soil and then covered with a nice layer of straw. (That’s almost like the concept of compost — the green (nitrogen)/the fresh plant —- and the browns (carbon)/ the straw. The buckwheat should decay very nicely and relatively quickly.

    If I had gotten to it when it was only about 3 to 4 inches tall I think I may have used my hand tool to lightly incorporate it into the first few inches of soil. It would have been fine that way also.

    Regarding your statement and question: I prefer not to disturb the soil and cut the cover crop and use it as mulch, but will the plants get the nutrient benefits of this cover crop for optimum production?

    This a question many of us have and fortunately nature has a principle that can easily answer it for us. The principle is diversity in all things.

    To elaborate:
    — When we plant cover crops we usually have some specific job in mind for them to do. That end goal is how we determine how to handle them. I told more about that in my post last September – BUT to get the most benefit from our cover crops: diversify the way you use them and make note of your results each time — even if only mentally.

    When you want that extra boost for the next crop — use your cover crop as a green manure. When you want the roots to stay and allow a different soil life to be active —- cut your crop and leave the roots. When you want the biomass for your compost or mulch — let a crop like rye or alfalfa grow and cut it several time. If you want to save seed — allow some to seed. Do not allow everything to seed — or all the nutrients will be in the seed.

    And on it goes. Vary what you do so all bases will be covered. If you follow the principle — you’ll always win.

    I buy quite a bit of my covers from Pinetree Garden Seeds. There shipping is about the most reasonable I’ve found.
    Glad you are thinking about using covers. They’ll make a big difference.

    Emily – Yes, Nichols is a good company. As with many seed supplier companies they were devastated when Monsanto bought the great seed company Seminis. Immediately after that Nichols began to seek out other varieties and stopped offering Seminis seeds because it is now owned by Monsanto. Along with many of us, they too are unwilling to offer economic support to Monsanto.
    I don’t know much about Botanical Interest but will check out your link.
    Glad you’re planting your covers to give new life to your finished beds. Keep me posted!

  • Dagmar – I forgot to mention that sometimes — especially if you have sandy soil — laying the cover crop on top of the bed to decay is more beneficial that incorporating it. The benefits last longer that way for sandy soil.

  • Theresa, what a wonderful bit of information. I have purchased my dutch white clover seed and am looking forward to getting it planted. Over the winter I will add to my seed bank by purchasing some buckwheat and maybe some winter rye. And I will keep researching using cover crops. Thank you for these posts because they really get me motivated.


  • Glad to hear that Toni.
    When we hear of the successes of others it’s always encouraging and helps each of us in our own garden.
    Will look forward to hearing about your experiences and successes with your cover crops.

  • Thank you Theresa for your in depth reply. One of my faults is that I want to get it right at the first try, that’s why I read and try to wrap my brain around everything instead of trying it out right away. Now the last few months I did not get the timing right on the buckwheat cover crop, I had two months gap between crops and I used buckwheat (should have used cow peas) and so I thought I cut the buckwheat and then put more buckwheat seeds underneath the cut down buckwheat. Lesson learned: only about half of the seeds germinated – so don’t do that again. I like the idea of cutting down the cover crop and covering with mulch (I have no access to straw – need to use shredded leaves and can’t wait till the trees start shedding in fall (the leaves from last fall are in my cold compost pile). I’ll do better next year!!! But looking forward to my fall crops – here in North Florida it is pretty much year round planting, so cover crops need to be planned carefully in winter too since I got stuff growing everywhere all year. And that is why I really also want to try living mulch. I actually took a leap and planted cow peas between my tomatoes I planted beginning of August. Will see how that goes.
    I have to check out Pinetree Seeds for Cover Crops, I ordered mine from Peaceful Valley and they have a huge selection, there is where I found the sunn hemp. Thanks again.

  • I have raised beds mainly, mostly Originally filled with topsoil and thick layers of leaves and garden waste, but thanks for the tip for the sandy soil since I have areas outside the raised beds where I want to grow Okinawa Spinach and herbs etc. I have sunn hemp growing there and I was planning just to cut it down and let it decay so I guess I was on the right track there.

  • Dagmar –
    Peaceful Valley is also a good company and it’s nice to have a huge selection.
    From what I understand Sunn Hemp is a great legume to grow in Southern/tropical areas so that would be a good choice for you.

    We all want to “get it right the first time”. 🙂 That’s only bad when we let it stop us from doing anything and I don’t think that’s the case with you Dagmar. From what you say — you are right in there trying things and learning and benefiting from your mistakes.

    Living mulch should really help you out since you don’t have access to straw. Keep me posted on that.

    Cow peas should be good between your tomatoes. If they get taller than what is good for you — just trim them down.

    One suggestion if I may: Consider using all leaves directly into your beds. (You can even chop them with the lawn mower if you want.)

    I have a cold compost pile too. It’s mainly a place to pile up weeds and various vegetation I pull out of my borders. Getting the end result after it’s decayed is a bonus.

    But my leaves are so precious that I would never consider putting them in my cold compost pile. I probably wouldn’t mind so much if it were a hot pile and was ready in 18 to 30 days. Even then I may hesitate. Leaves are so filled with great stuff and are just about the best thing you can do for your soil. Soil life loves them and when I get them in the fall I can hardly wait to get them to the garden so the soil can start reaping the rewards.

    Good luck with everything. I’ll look forward to your updates.

  • Very interesting about the leaves. Yes, I definitely will start to use them on the beds, Actually I can probably pull a good amount from the compost pile I have. I have about 20 oak trees in my yard, so I do get plenty of leaves. Thank you for the tip.

  • So glad you’re gonna use the tip Dagmar! Leaves make everything better.
    If I had 20 oak trees in my yard I would think I was in heaven and so would my garden. 🙂

  • I would like to copy this article as part of a demonstration at a community garden on putting the garden to bed. Please let me know if you have any objections. Thank you and keep up with your great articles. I look forward to reading them.

  • Jack, you may use the article but I would like for you to show my copyright on it. “Copyright” will be sufficient.

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