I’ve just returned from another great ASCFG grower meeting: Portland was great! I so enjoyed meeting folks that I have known only through social media—having a smile to go with a name is great. Be sure to watch the videos from this meeting in the Members Only section on the ASCFG website. It’s almost as good as going!

After hearing about garden roses and the no-till method I think I have been tempted to try them both! Isn’t that the great part about meeting with others that do what you do? Their enthusiasm rubs off on you and you just can’t help yourself! Am I going to plant roses? Not sure, but it is surely exciting to consider it.

As I am currently trapped indoors pounding away on a new book project, I am watching my cover crops growing like mad in this crazy weather. I am so thankful for them because they give me hope that spring is coming. I decided to share what helped me find my way to work cover crops into my little farm.

Small Farms Cover Crops

The benefits of cover cropping far outweigh the head-scratching that goes on when trying to figure out how to work them into a small farm rotation. For me the magic moment came when I realized that having the seed on hand at all times helped a lot, and to grow only what was easy for me. My way may be simple, but it has allowed me to include some cover cropping on my small urban farm where space is always at a premium. It has added tons of organic mass to our soil and more.

Good reasons to grow cover crops: they provide habitat and food sources for pollinators and other beneficial insects, add organic matter to the soil, and some are allopathic and can even added nitrogen to the soil.

I use an Earthway Ev-n-Spreader to plant all my cover crop seed. I cover the seed by shallow tilling or raking. Covering the seed increases germination greatly. I allow Mother Nature to water.

Cool-Season Cover Crops
Cool-season cover crops were perhaps the easiest for me to work into the rotation at first. Only a third of my beds are planted through winter in a cash crop and they provided a way to protect rest of the garden. It is best to plant a fall cover crop when it has enough time to sprout and become established with good top growth before the first frost, typically 6-8 weeks before the first fall frost.

Winter Rye    
Winter rye is a great cover to plant later in fall after the last cash crops are done producing. It can germinate at lower temperatures (34 degrees) and can survive brutal winter weather. It starts growing again in spring when temperatures reach just 38 degrees. This brute seems to match my always-late planting habits and greets my spring hopes of more growth when little else does.  

One consideration for winter rye is what is going to be planted in the given area come spring. Rye is known for its allelopathic effects on some weeds. This means that the decomposing rye produces a toxin that can inhibit future germination (hooray!). While I consider this a great benefit because I plant transplants only in spring and summer, others that direct seed in spring could run into problems. I get great weed control in the garden the summer season following winter rye grass.

I tend to plant winter rye in the area I am planning for my second summer planting of annuals. This gives sufficient time for the rye to mature for the maximum organic mass before incorporating into the soil. I plow it under as the heads are beginning to develop, and then leave the garden for 2-4 weeks to while it starts to die off and begins to decompose. I follow with preparing the field as normal. Rye takes longer to decompose than crimson clover.

Crimson Clover
I like to plant crimson clover as early in fall as possible. It gives its best performance when allowed to grow and cover the soil before the first frost. Because it is in the legume family it will also add some nitrogen to the soil in addition to organic mass. If you have chickens, beware: they adore clover, but know they can pulverize a planting quickly in fall as it is getting established. Controlled exposure to the patch can work for chickens and their peoples.

I tend to plant crimson clover where the first summer annual planting is going the following season. To reap the full benefit of nitrogen and organic mass from the clover the target to incorporate it into the soil is when it is at its prettiest- in full glory bloom. This tends to happen early spring for us so a perfect fit for the summer planting. Turning the clover into the soil by tilling only has worked well for us. It decomposes quickly and is leaves the beds ready for planting in just a couple of weeks.  

Warm-Season Cover Crops Buckwheat

A great summer addition to the garden is buckwheat because it is so quick. It grows from seed to bloom in about 30 days. It feels as though it grows literally in the blink of the eye. This is the cover crop that taught me to always plant a torn-down bed immediately if there is not a cash crop ready to be planted in the next few days.

As soon as the bed is torn down, mowed and tilled, I grab some buckwheat seed, scatter, and cover it with soil. Before I know it, the buckwheat has germinated and is making a beautiful canopy of vegetation and will soon be blooming. I will repeat buckwheat plantings if cash crops are not ready to go in yet.

Because it grows so quickly it makes an excellent weed suppressor; it outgrows most weeds. It should be incorporated into the soil when it is in bloom but before it sets seed. Other benefits are that the stems are hollow so it is easy to turn into the soil with a shovel, and it breaks down fast.  

Reap the benefits—make cover crops a part of your garden

Lisa Ziegler

The Gardener's Workshop

Lisa Ziegler The Gardener's Workshop Contact her at [email protected]