Cover Cropping

Cover cropping is an important part of sustainable farming.  We aim to keep bare soil to a minimum.  On our farm we try to have two cover crops and one harvested crop on each garden each year.  So 2/3 of what we grow is intended to be plowed back into the soil.

Ideally we’ll get a cover crop seeded in the fall.  Sometimes that’s not possible with later crops.  If necessary we can try to plant a quick maturing cover crop in the early spring. We follow spring gardens (and precede fall gardens) with summer cover crops like buckwheat, millet and milo. This year we’re planning to also try sunn hemp, a tropical legume.  In the fall we plant a mixture of clover, winter peas, rye, and oats.

Cover cropping adds organic material to the soil, improves soil fertility and helps naturally suppress weeds.  It helps ensure a healthy biotic community in the soil.

Rather than cover cropping, the industrial model uses chemicals and poisons to fertilize and suppress weeds.

But lately something interesting seems to be happening.  Just as conventional farms are increasingly turning to non-GMO grains, there has also been an increase in the use of cover cropping as an alternative to chemical inputs.  Farms using cover crops are finding that they can improve yields and decrease the amount they’re spending on inputs.  They’re learning that it pays, literally, to take care of the soil.

These moves toward more sustainable practices are small now.  By and large the industrial model is churning along as before.  But as more and more industrial farms begin to peel away and take up more sustainable practices I’m reminded of Gandhi’s quote, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

4 comments on “Cover Cropping

  1. Gandhi’s quote supports my hope that cultures naturally move toward progressive thought. The move is slow, often goes in reverse, prompts wars and horrors, leaves wide-spread shame, but always in the long view pushes towards the progressive. Reason always wins, even when it loses.


    • Bill says:

      That’s what I hope and believe as well. With as many things as we have to complain about these days, by almost every measurement things are better now than they were 100 years ago. But between now and then we’ve had world wars, genocides, a great depression and countless other tragedies and setbacks. But we march on, getting better even when it doesn’t seem like it. We can be stubborn about it, but over the long run we usually do the right thing, it seems to me. So I choose to be a long-term optimist.


  2. nebraskadave says:

    Dad’s crop growing cycle of rotation was always corn one year, small grain the next year with alfalfa seeded in the mix to take over the field after the small grain was harvested. Then possibly a small harvest of alfalfa before frost with four more the next year. The following year the alfalfa was plodded under and back to corn. The harvests were smaller than neighbor’s with chemically enhanced fields but the cycle was sustainable with no great outside cost. Of course the animal waste was spread on the fields. I was actually witnessing homesteading before it was called that. Permaculture would be very close to the way he farmed. I found a note book on a class that he had attended from the County Extension Service on how to farm that taught him all the wise knowledge about farm management. It was probably from about 75 years ago. How much our philosophy is coming full circle. I really didn’t know what I had in my possession and pitched it in the trash as newer and better farming techniques didn’t follow those old fashioned ways. I really wish I had the notebook and the course books back now. It covered everything to do with growing crops and animal care. It even taught how the two would benefit each other.

    My claim to fame is not cover crops but deep yard waste mulch. When I say deep I mean at least a foot deep each fall. Over the Winter the freezing and thawing with bring the depth to about 4 to 6 inches by Spring. Planting in the Spring is done by slicing through the layer of compacted mulch and spreading it enough to plant in the soil below. As the crops of corn, squash, pumpkins, watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, and green peppers grow the mulch is closed up around the plants. The mulch of shredded leaves and grass mixture will continue to break down over the summer and be about one or two inches deep by Fall. During the summer months it’s kept moisture in the ground, the weeds at bay, and nourished the plants as the rain soaked through the composting mulch. I do rotate the crops around on a four year cycle.

    Have a great cover crop day.


    • Bill says:

      The way you’re doing it is even better. I’d like to go to a no-till deep-mulch method, but just haven’t been able to figure out how to make it work here. We plan to experiment with a garden or two to see about moving in that direction.

      I think you’re right about the philosophy coming full circle. I expect eventually we’ll have no choice in the matter. That which is sustainable is that which will survive.


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