Category Archives: cover crops

Time to Plant Cover Crops

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There was a 50% chance of rain predicted for today (which resulted in 100% chance upon awakening this morning!) so yesterday I raced out into one of my flowerbeds and tucked away some fava beans. The ground in this flower bed is okay, but I can tell by the flowers that it certainly needs a boost. With hard clay soil, we need to stay on top of constantly amending and improving it. Just the other day I opened up a sketch book to find that I had made garden notes from when we had only been married a month! That was 11 years ago. I wrote that we had planted favas in October and by April they were only 3″ tall. That’s not tall above the surface, but I know by growing other things over the winter, that the roots had gained a firm foot. I remember to this day how big and healthy those favas grew once spring hit.

Since the idea of cover crops is to let the crops root system do your hard work, planting the seeds in fall is a good idea indeed. Many cover crops are called ‘accumulators’ meaning they draw nutrients up from deep down in the soil up to the part where the majority of roots are. In the case of favas, they draw up nitrogen. In years past I did a longer post on cover crops, even showing the nitrogen balls the fava roots collect. We try and plant cover crops every year, but last year, who knows, we must have gotten too busy or lazy. And we paid for it. Two early springs ago I went outside for 10 minutes at a time and dug up new ground and planted favas as I went. It was slow work, but we were rewarded with an incredible garden in that spot the following summer. This past summer, without a preceding fava cover crop, the garden was pale in comparison. This year, we won’t make the same mistake.

Cover crops also crowd out weeds. One daunting task of the spring garden is weeding the darn thing before you can start planting. If you have the foresight to plant cover crops in fall, the winter & early spring weeds will be crowded out. Since I was planting in my weed prone flowerbed, I planted an extra thick border along the back to aid the amaryllis in keeping the weeds at bay.

Yet another job of cover crops is to break up hard packed soil. As you probably know, there are some very devoted people who don’t believe in tilling the soil. There are others who break out their trusty rototiller every spring. And yet others who advise double or triple digging your garden bed with a shovel. As for us, we are experimenters. We try a little of everything and with this section of gardening I’m going with the no till method. My idea is to layer on compost and mulch and build from the top up. It’s still helpful to get down deep however and to do that, you can plant cover crops. Their roots will shoot way down, all those thousands of tiny root hairs. Then in spring when you cut it down, all those roots will die and wither creating little pockets of air in our hard clay soil. This will make it easier for worms to dig down further as well as new flower roots to grow down further.

So that’s my plan for these little bean seeds. Are you planting a cover crop this year? Which kind and do you plant in fall or early spring?

more about our cover crops

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rain, cover crops, bare plants and ethiopian food

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It was rainy here…finally. What a dry winter we’ve had up until now.
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Scott ran around throwing out cover crop seeds down before the rain started (an old post about cover crops). The crimson clover and purple vetch are already sprouting.
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The favas I planted earlier are thriving.
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While I’ve been forcing roses into dormancy…
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…Scott’s been on the other side of the yard taming raspberries into neat and tidy rows.
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Six new bare root fruit trees await planting. Two cherries, one plum, one persimmon, and two more figs.
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The seedlings are coming along well. Now that we have a place to grow inside with warm southern sun, we can start our seeds earlier than before.
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All this winter weather has had us in the kitchen cooking with spices. Scott’s been making lentils and curried winter squash soup. Last night I made our favorite Beef in Berbere Sauce (taming the heat by paring the 1T of cayenne down to 1/4t.) with…
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injera. Reminding me of my high school and college days when we used to adventure into Berkeley to the Blue Nile for Ethiopian food. So sad to hear they are closed.

Hope these winter days are going well in your part of the woods.

p.s. As often as I can remember, I thought I’d post back to previous years around the same date. January 26, 2009 More Edible Weeds

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All About Cover Crops

Cover Crop
While we were on our vacation, Sunshine Through The Windows asked about when the right time to plant cover crops is. I thought I’d take the opportunity to make that small question into a post all about cover crops, if you don’t mind.

Cover crops (also known as green manure) are fantastic ways to enrich your soil. In fact they’ve helped to improve our soil dramatically over the years. Cover crops are a crop that you plant in the off season that works while you rest. Their roots help to break up hard soil and aerate it while also imparting nitrogen into your soil. You can see the nitrogen on our last years cover crop of favas and vetch here. In the spring you cut or mow down the crop leaving the roots in the soil. You can then gently till the soil to spread around the nitrogen and other nutrients the roots provide. As for the tops of the plants, they are a welcome addition to your compost pile that will help amend your soil also.

There are all sorts of cover crops that you can grow, favas, field peas, vetch, buckwheat etc. This year we went with a variety cover crop seed mix that our local nursery pointed us too. Normally, in our non snowy climate, it’s best to plant this in fall. However time escaped us this year and we didn’t get to it until December. If you live in a snowy area, you can plant this first thing in spring and mow it down in summer when your tomatoes and peppers are ready to plant out.

If you’d like to read more about cover crops and overall soil health, I can’t recommend the book Secrets to Great Soil (Storey’s Gardening Skills Illustrated) enough. We refer to this book over and over again.

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Starting the New Year off Right

Nectarine Branches

This year, we have decided to start the New Year off the right way. This year, we are heading out on New Years Eve to the last place in the states to ring in the new year, Kauai. I’ve never been anywhere tropical before. I’ve always thought that hooded sweatshirts and wool socks were typical beach wear. So the thought of sipping Mai Tai’s on warm sandy beaches and swimming in warm ocean water is delightful.

In the meantime, we will return to see these cut nectarine branches in bloom (hopefully), our annual cover crop sprouted (which we just now finally planted!), and the excitement to start a new year. This year will be a good year, I can feel it. I have a lot of fun ideas for this blog space for when I return. Have a very Happy New Year. I’ll drink a mai tai for you all!

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7 Things to Improve Your Soil

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We’ve been thinking a lot about dirt lately. Or, rather ‘soil’ as we gardeners like to say. We’ve been thinking about weeds and learning about how you can tell a lot about your soil by what weeds grow in it. We’re just starting to learn about this so we’ll keep you posted. But it’s gotten me to think about how as gardeners we are truly stewards of the soil. Any organic gardener knows that your plants are only as healthy as your soil, so its important to take excellent care of it. The best way to ensure your soils health is to add plenty of organic matter. Sure, we know that the three big soil nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but macro and micro nutrients are also critical because those are are what break down the organic matter to release the nutrients to your plants. Here’s a list of things you can easily do to improve your soils health.

  • 1. For new garden beds, mix one inch of compost or 3 inches of grass clippings into the top 6 inches of soil.
  • 2. Mulch around plants with 2 inches of grass clippings, coffee ground or compost which will slowly add nutrients to the soil and encourage earthworms and other soil organisms
  • 3. Apply a spray of compost tea. Compost tea is low in nutrients but high in micronutrients
  • 4. Plant a living mulch this summer such as oats or white dutch clover around your vegetables. Their roots will loosen compacted soil and concentrate nutrients for your vegetables to feed on.
  • 5. Dry out eggshells and crumble them into the soil for a boost of calcium and micronutrients. (via katrina)
  • 6. Start a compost pile, bin or vermiculture box.
  • 7. Double dig your soil about 2 feet deep, blending in compost as you go. The benefits will last indefinately. This will improve drainage, aeration, improve root growth, encourage earthworms and allow nutrients to be evenly spread through the root zone.
  • All these ideas are pretty easy things that you can do this weekend. I hope you try a few!

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    favas & vetch as cover crops


    Every fall we plant a new cover crop. Why plant something we can’t really eat? Because not only does it make our otherwise brown winter garden green, but it’s quite beneficial to the soil. Cover crops hold down soil from winters erroding rains, they build up nutrients in the soil, and come spring they provide plenty of material (called biomass if you want to talk like a pro) for composting.

    Each year Scott tries a different combination of cover crops to bring new nutrients to our soil. This year it was fava beans and purple vetch.

    What I find pretty amazing about using cover crops is that when you pull up the roots you can actually see the little balls of nitrogen that have formed on the roots. Here’s the roots of the fava beans, do you see those little balls attached to the roots?
    Fava Roots
    What is also amazing is the immediate action of that added nitrogen. Our fava bean patch and lettuce patch became interplanted at one end and the lettuce that was growing amidts the favas was about three times larger than the lettuce growing on it’s own. I wish I had taken a picture of it before our chickens found it and made themselves a salad lunch.

    One thing new we learned this year about growing fava beans as a cover crop is that you should till the crop under before the plant has created beans because the nutrients are then brought up from the soil into the making of the beans. Previously we had waited for the beans to form so that we could eat them ourselves. This year we’ll most likely till the majority of them and eat a few of them. They are too tasty to till them all!


    Our chest high favas also make for great exploring for little ones:
    Chasing Chickens through Fava Beans
    Here is the purple vetch
    Vetch
    and it’s roots
    Vetch Roots
    Vetch actually gives a bit more nitrogen to the soil, but it grows in a more matted form so it’s hard to do interplantings if you wanted to do those like we did (inadvertently with the lettuce).

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