Cover Cropping

Ideally we like to have something growing on our gardens at all times.  Bare soil is not something organic farmers like to see.

We use cover crops to keep the soil alive and nourished between our food crops.  As we have three growing seasons here, we aim for each garden to have two cover crops for every one food crop. Those cover crops are tilled in and reincorporated into the soil, which helps build organic matter and improve soil tilth and fertility.

Tilling in a millet cover crop

Tilling in a German millet cover crop

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Harvesting some to dry

Harvesting some to dry

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We plant our cover crops as soon as we can prepare the soil once we’ve finished harvesting the food crop.  What we use as a cover crop depends on when we’re able to plant it.  Here’s the schedule we’ve been using:

Early Spring:  Spring oats
Before 8/20: buckwheat, millet, milo (or sorghum sudangrass)
After 8/20: oats, Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, vetch
After 9/14:  winter peas, winter rye, crimson clover
After 10/15: winter rye, winter peas
After 11/5: winter rye

A convenient way to get fall covercrop mixes is to buy the deer or “wildlife” seed mixes that are sold at farm supply stores. Hunters use these to bait fields, but they’re a good mix of fall grasses (check the label to be sure) and save you the trouble of having to buy the seeds separately.  These mixes don’t have enough crimson clover in them for me, so I usually buy some and add it to the mix.

This past year we added sunflowers as a cover crop behind our spring lettuce. They came up beautifully, smothered weeds well and produced a tremendous amount of biomass to put back in the soil.  As a bonus we were able to sell a lot of the flowers and it’s easy to dry the heads and save seed for next year. The stalks are thick however and you’ll need to mow them down with a bushhog before trying to till them in.  Even then they’re likely to wrap around the tiller so you’ll have to clear them off frequently.

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At this point they're ready to be mowed and tilled in.

At this point they’re ready to be mowed and tilled in.

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Drying some heads for next year’s seed.

We’ve got a couple of new cover crop ideas we’re going to try this year.  We’re going to try growing tillage radishes after a couple of our summer crops (maybe cantaloupes and watermelons).  These are large radishes that will winter-kill, then rot in the ground the following spring, incorporating nitrogen into the soil naturally.  I was planning to try them last year but I didn’t want to buy a 50 lb bag of seed and our local supply store wouldn’t sell me less than that. This year I’ll either spring for an entire bag, find another source of the seed, or find some other farmer(s) who will go in with us on a bag.  I’m anxious to see how they do.  Getting nitrogen into the soil is especially important for us since we don’t use any synthetic fertilizers.  With cover crops now we’ve been doing that with legumes, such as crimson clover.  The radishes have the advantage of breaking compacted soil up too.

We’re also going to try using purple hull peas as a summer cover crop. We saved a lot more seed last year than we need, and these peas are great at fixing nitrogen.  We grow a large garden of them every year but I’ve never used them as a cover crop before.  They’re a hot weather crop and none of our current hot weather cover crops are legumes, so they seem an ideal candidate.

A field of purple hull peas. These aren't full grown yet. They provide excellent ground cover and are great for soil fertility.  As a cover crop they would be broadcast, not sowed in rows like these.

A field of purple hull peas. These aren’t full grown yet. They provide excellent ground cover and are great for soil fertility. As a cover crop they would be broadcast, not sowed in rows like these.

They are a delicious food crop too of course.

They are a delicious food crop too of course.

Of course peas are deer candy.  For that matter it seems that most cover crops are.  We barely have enough deer fencing to fence out our food crops so we’ll be at the mercy of the deer no matter what we plant.  They’ve made it tough for us to grow our cover crops and much of the biomass that is intended for our soils ends up in deer bellies instead.  But maybe the cover crop feasts we’ve provided have helped keep them out of our vegetable gardens.

I’m looking forward to gardens lush and green.  On a very cold winter morning.

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21 comments on “Cover Cropping

  1. BeeHappee says:

    Beautiful post, Bill, and very informative as always. Love the sunflowers and purple pees and the deer story. Good thing to be looking at those green pictures when it is all white outside. I like your new profile picture. And your wife is gorgeous. When I think about it, when my grandparents farmed and gardened, they knew very little of scientific facts of farming, they passed some knowledge from generation to generation but were not quite sure why they were doing some things one way rather than the other. . Nor did they have variety of seeds and plants available to them. So good to see much knowledge and experience passed around these days. Thank you.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks. You bring up an interesting point. Until recently most people saved most of the seed they needed for the next year. That doesn’t happen so much these days. It’s good to spread the knowledge (and the seeds) around. We had visitors from the Ukraine last year–an elderly couple who are the parents of a friend’s fiance. They are avid gardeners and were thrilled when we gave them some seeds. Hopefully those seeds turned into veggies for them in the Ukraine last year. 🙂

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  2. Joanna says:

    A very interesting post Bill. Good to know what approach you are taking

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  3. shoreacres says:

    Here you go: a little music to till by. And speaking of that process, what a wonderful word, “tilth.” I do vaguely remember hearing phrases like “improve the tilth of the soil,” but it’s been a long time.

    You’ve solved another mystery for me. The last time I was in the Mississippi Delta, there were huge swaths of land planted in red clover. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t quite figure out what they were up to, since I didn’t see any cattle browsing, etc. Now I suspect the clover was being used as a cover crop, especially since the articles I just read about cotton farming included paragraphs like this:

    “On some cotton farms it is the practice to break the land in winter or early spring and then let it lie naked until planting-time. This is not a good practice. The winter rains wash more plant food out of unprotected soil than a single crop would use. It would be better, in the late summer or fall, to plant crimson clover or some other protective and enriching cover crop on land that is to be planted in cotton in the spring. This cover crop, in addition to keeping the land from being injuriously washed, would greatly help the coming cotton crop by leaving the soil full of vegetable matter.”

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    • shoreacres says:

      I found a photo from that trip to Mississippi.Isn’t that clover pretty?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bill says:

        Yes, that is crimson clover. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that the photo was of red clover, which is an entirely different (but also beautiful) plant. Red clover is what you would see in a pasture. Crimson clover is the more popular cover crop. The quote is correct of course. Tobacco farmers (and most gardeners) do the same thing here. They turn the soil over in the fall or early winter and leave the ground bare until they plant in late spring. They think we’re weird for planting grass in our gardens while they’re trying to kill any in theirs. But cover cropping is becoming more common even among conventional farmers now. The USDA and NRCS are pushing it and going around the country giving demonstrations to prove to farmers that the use of cover crops will increase their yields and profits. I’ve seen the demonstration and presentation and it is compelling.

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  4. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, great post as usual. Cover crops in Nebraska has long gone by the way for the full time large scale farmer. In fact the less they touch the soil the better the modern farmer likes it. Spring brings a one time pass of semi tilling the soil and planting with herbicide and pesticide already on the seed planted all in one pass. A second pass a few weeks later for anhydrous ammonia application which is the nitrogen of choice for corn and beans. Then all that’s left is wait for harvest. Many farmers have at least some fields with center pivot irrigation systems to give better harvest yields during the dry years.

    I’ve mentioned before here that my Dad taught me about crop rotation and cover crops during my teen years on our small 100 acre farm. However, I am constantly reminded by reading your blog that concept can be used in gardening as well. I haven’t used it yet in my garden beds but instead pile up year end yard waste that has not been contaminated by modern lawn chemicals on the beds to decompose during the winter months. In the spring the half composted yard material is dug into the bed and left to rest a couple weeks before planting. During the growing season uncontaminated green lawn material (grass clippings) is used for mulch after a semi drying time.

    Have a great cover crop planning day.

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    • Bill says:

      The industrial farmers here aren’t using cover crops either. The road we live on is lined with tobacco fields and they’re all plowed bare ground right now. But more and more conventional farmers are starting to use them as the benefits are becoming better known.

      With you sheet mulch system you don’t need to cover crop like we do. Your soil is getting fed plenty and the ground is never subject to erosion.

      We need to get better at it, but we’re trying to keep something growing on our gardens at all times.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Cover cropping is pretty mainstream locally. There’s a lot of variety in how people apply the technique however. Some, like you are choosing crops based on their nutrient contribution. Others are using cover crops as a secondary crop. Then there are the local corn farmers. They’ve figured out they have to do something to improve their soil after the corn has been mining it for a decade, so they now plant different cover crops – one of them is doing a rotation that includes some market vegetables. I’m impressed. Bizarrely however, they are using Round Up on the cover crop when it’s time to till it in, because it makes it easier to till.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Good to know they’re not being as stubborn as the farmers around here. The evidence of the benefits of covercropping is overwhelming. Whatever they spend in cover crop seed will easily be saved in reduced fertilizer expense and greater cash crop yields.

      As for spraying Round Up on the cover crop–good grief.

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  6. bobraxton says:

    The old NC country used to include alfalfa (which also wound up being part of feed for the hogs, mixed in the “slop” bucket (western NC called it “swill” and not Slop).

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    • Bill says:

      Alfalfa would be an expensive cover crop, it seems to me, if the plan was to just plow it under. It’s premium hay. I’ve never grown any here.

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  7. avwalters says:

    Since my gardens were small in the city, I used clover and ryegrass for cover. I followed the rule that you never let a season see just dirt. Here, where we have real winter, it’ll be interesting to experiment. This comes under the category of “Feed the soil, not the plant,” one of organic gardening’s mantras.

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    • Bill says:

      I’m not sure a winter cover crop is possible as far north as you are. I guess you’d want to try to get something that would emerge in the fall, go dormant over winter and grow again in the spring. But it would be hard to work that in given the short season for veggies. Probably a good question for your extension agent.

      Feed the soil. Yes. Exactly.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. valbjerke says:

    Even though I garden almost exclusively in raised beds, I always plant something in each that I can just leave behind or dig in before it goes to seed. Similar to your idea with the millet – I like buckwheat. I can hand harvest the buckwheat for flour, then simply let the plants compost in the bed til spring.

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    • Bill says:

      I like that idea. We’re looking at ways to get some secondary benefits from the cover crops–as we did with the millet and sunflowers this year.
      No-till is the best for the soil. If I was starting over again I might go in the direction of permanent raised beds rather than tractor-based row cropping. We have some raised beds and keep adding more. The soil in them is vastly superior to the soil we till every year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • valbjerke says:

        I’m a total convert to raised beds – our are at minumum 30 inches deep (no bending down at all for harvest) – and yes – the soil is excellent, the moisture hold extremely well – so less watering. It would rrquire an awful lot of them though, to produce the volume you do on your land.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Cindi says:

    Fascinating information!

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