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Homestead Observations: More on cover crops

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 December Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Dead cover crop biomass/mulch

It’s mid-November as I write this, a cold and rainy day. However, last week was glorious, and I tried to spend as much time in the garden as possible. Mostly all the beds are tucked in for the winter, either with a heavy mulch of shredded leaves or a dead cover crop (CC) which serves as a dual-purpose mulch. All mulch builds soil, but the roots of annual cover crops left in the soil when they die back do several valuable things. First of all, they hold the soil in place and prevent erosion, secondly, as these decompose they become a source of food for the soil macro and microorganisms, finally, they also create channels for air and moisture to penetrate deep into the top and sub soils.

I know that I’ve written about cover crops before and may sound like a broken record (remember those?), but here I go again, as I think they are vital soil builders and that small-scale growers like us can utilize them to great effect. This is the time to plan for next year’s garden. Many of the organic cover crop seeds are hard to find at farm supply stores but the NOFA Tri-state Bulk Order offers many choices at a fair and reasonable price. You can order seeds in small amounts, and also this year, there will be CC cocktail mixes available as well. So, think about your growing area and your soil’s needs now so that you can obtain good organic seeds and be ready for early spring planting. I order enough to plant and replant several times throughout the entire growing season.

 July mixed cover cropThis year was the first that I planted forage radish as a cover crop. It’s been an interesting addition to my usual mix of oats, peas, sorghum & buckwheat.   They all have differing properties, which help to improve the soil. The latest research indicates that including many types of CC seeds, thus creating a “cocktail”, is more advantageous than planting them singly.   The radish, a daikon type, has a huge root that penetrates well into the subsoil, thus helping break up hardpan or other obstructions, plus they are tasty too! Nibbling a little on cover crops is an added bonus. I also harvest the tender tips of field peas.

Also, this year I mixed the sorghum-Sudan grass into the cocktail at a much higher rate. This cover crop creates a large amount of biomass and looks much like corn, with a similar stalk, leaf and root structure. My garden appeared to have corn growing everywhere! Most of these CC’s survive light frosts, but succumb to several killing frosts. Right now the radish is still going strong, despite several major deep freezes, a bright splash of green amongst the brown.

The reason I choose the CC’s I do is that they do die back over the winter, and I don’t have to worry about them re-growing. In the spring, the beds will be covered in mulch formed by the dead biomass. This mulch does not have to be turned under, but can be moved aside to plant vegetable seeds or transplants. The no-till is a very important part of my growing philosophy. I like to keep all of the soil structure intact. I compare it to a layer cake with each layer being a different life zone for various organisms. Each soil microorganism has its preferred environment for optimal functioning. Tilling turns everything topsy-turvy, upsetting the life zones as well as damaging soil friability by “blenderizing” soil aggregates, fungal hyphae and air/water pathways. No-till also has an important benefit in our quest to sequester carbon and reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.   Check out the Soil Carbon information at www.nofamass.org/carbon.

This past week, Pru and I met with a couple that has attended several of our homestead/garden workshops over the years. They have recently retired and want to boost their skill level now that they have more time and energy. We’ve set up a mentoring/consultation program with them that we are all excited about. The reason I mention this is because we did a site visit to their place and were quite impressed by their CC implementation. Their garden is about 1500 square feet, which, two years ago, they converted from conventional rows to a permanent bed system. These are not fancy raised beds, but just no-walk growing areas separated by walking paths.

They had every 2-foot wide no-till bed planted in CC’s. Previously, they had turned the area over every spring. After just 2 years, they marvel at the quality of the soil structure, productivity and ease of care. It’s their most productive garden ever and now they need to learn more about how to preserve it!

Driving through the Pioneer Valley the other day, it was great to see so many large fields with their cover crops greening up. I appreciate that those farmers take the extra time, effort and expense to improve their soil. However, most of this will be tilled under in the spring, as the no-till practices have been slow to catch on. That is one advantage we gardeners/homesteaders have. Our smaller scale makes it easier for us to implement and profit from this no-till knowledge. As the saying goes, “Try it, you’ll like it!” Well actually you and your soil will LOVE it! See you at the Winter Conference.

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