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Homestead Reflections: Fall Cover Crops

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 September Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

1) Young cover crop planted on 18” space at end of onion bed

It’s been a great growing year, so far, and we’ve had an abundant harvest of delicious vegetables. The apple and pear trees are loaded with fruit soon to be enjoyed. Every year our soil becomes richer and healthier, yielding more nutritious and delicious food while removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering carbon in our soil. This is a continuous cycle of life creating and sustaining life.

I’ve been preparing a presentation about this biological growing technique (No-till and Cover Crops for us gardeners) for both a NOFA/Mass webinar and a workshop at the Summer Conference. If you are interested and missed these talks, you can view the YouTube video of the whole talk.

But today, I wanted to share some easy ways to implement these concepts, even at this time of year.  There should be at least a month or more before a killing frost and, as vegetables expire, we can reuse the space. The most important thing is to KEEP SOIL COVERED and untilled.

  1. Use as a succession: I harvested our great garlic crop the beginning of August and immediately planted a winter-kill cover crop mix (oats, field pea, Sudan grass, forage radish, barley and buckwheat – use any or all mixed together) by sprinkling the seeds on top of the soil and then use a rake to gently shuffle into the top inch. Water. Watch grow. Plants will be 3-4 feet tall before heavy freezes will kill them. You are then left with very thick, free mulch, which will protect your soil the rest of the winter.

Sow same cover crop mix anywhere that you remove a vegetable crop, i.e. after lettuce or peas or weeds. Remember to cut off those plants at or below soil surface leaving the roots for soil microbes and leaving soil profile undisturbed. 

  1. Under-sowing: Under-sow taller crops in mid-late season when it is 1/3 the way through the vegetables’ growth cycle, but up to four weeks before killing frosts. The cover crops that come up under these plants do not compete, but rather nourish the soil and suppress weeds (i.e. a corn with 75 days to maturity can be under-sown after it has 25 days of growth). I also do this with tomatoes, peppers, pole beans, asparagus, and tomatillos.
  2. Mulch if not able to cover crop. Shredded leaves, spoiled hay, straw, cardboard, wood chips, biomass from cover crops, whatever you have at hand that will cover the soil as it decomposes will also feed the soil food web.

I hope one of these simple steps will be useful to you. For me, cover cropping and no-till have been rewarding on so many levels. Having the “free” biomass and keeping my soil covered with less effort on my part is pretty high up on the reward scale!

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