Tag Archives: cover crop

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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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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Filed under Cover Crops, what we've learned