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Homestead Reflections - Growing Healthy Soil in Mid to Late Summer

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 July Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Hand tool on newly prepped bed with CC seeds before raking in 2 Sorghum Sudan in mixed cover crop cocktail

As seems to be the norm around Wild Browse, there is a still a lot to do, however, the bulk of the crops are in the ground, which is a big load off of my mind.  Of course, there will be regular succession planting and maintenance of vegetables and cover crops as the weeks progress. 

The signs of summer are everywhere; the strawberries have started to ripen, robins and orioles have fledged, and the deer flies have arrived!  The last few nights have served up a dazzling display of wonderment as the fireflies weave their magic in the early-summer night sky.  Having been enchanted by these creatures since childhood, I realized that I didn’t know much about their life cycle and how they might affect the garden.  So, the Internet to the rescue!   Turns out that unlike the short-lived adult (2 weeks), the larva lives about a year in the soil.  The larva is carnivorous and eats soft-bodied insects like worms, slugs, and other insect larvae.   After viewing some ID photos, I realize that I’ve seen plenty of them in the garden soil.  Some of those photos show firefly larvae eating grubs and cutworms, not just our earthworm friends.  Luckily my philosophy of “non-squishing” has prevented me from inadvertently disrupting this magic show!  It amazes me how these important lessons repeat, often in ways that make me pay closer attention.  Yet another indication that diversity leads to balance and harmony!

Implementing some of these cover crop (CC) growing techniques, like under-sowing and inter-planting, takes a leap of faith, as it seems counter-intuitive.  In the past we were taught many principles that are in need of revisiting and re-visioning:  keep competingvegetation away from your vegetables, a messy garden harbors disease and pests, weeds are bad… However, if viewed from a different perspective, there is a paradigm shift, allowing us to change from a model of competition to one of cooperation, from monoculture to diversity, clean cultivation to green covered soil, from controller to thoughtful co-creator and many of those old principles can be discarded.

So, let’s take a look at our mid to late summer healthy soil/cover crop adventure.

  • Keep soil covered as much as possible.  Sow a cover crop (CC) cocktail into any bare/unplanted spots in the garden, whether it is a 12” space at the end of a row or a larger area where an early veggie crop has been removed (early lettuce, greens, carrots, etc.).  
  • Begin “under-sowing” CC’s amongst your tall vegetables. Remember the rule is to sow CC’s after the main crop is at least 1/3 of it’s way toward maturity.  As an example:  if corn with a maturity of 90 days, germinated on June 15 it would be well established and have reached 1/3 of its maturity on July 15.  At this point a mixed CC could be scattered between the rows/hills of corn.  It will germinate, and grow at a slow pace in the shade of the corn, ready to replace the corn after harvest.  During this time the CC serves as a living mulch; suppressing weeds and keeping the soil moist. It is also a living source of nutrients, photosynthesizing and feeding soil microbes to increase soil health.  This under-sowing technique can be used with all of the taller vegetable crops, including tomatoes, peppers, brassicas, and trellis crops like cucumbers.  Perennials, like asparagus, after it fully fronds, and tall, perennial herbs are also good candidates for under-sowing.  
  • Maintenance of early-planted CC’s is also important.  April/May planted oats, field-pea, and forage radish are probably 30-40” tall.  If they are growing in a bed dedicated to CC’s, you may choose to let them mature and set seeds.  I often let this happen when I have enough space, allowing the bed to reseed itself, naturally.  At that point I often sow other CC varieties, including those well suited to summer growing (buckwheat, sorghum, barley, sunflowers) right into the fallen residue from the early CC’s, to diversify the cocktail. If unwanted self-seeding occurs in other areas of the garden, those plants are easily cut down and killed with simple hand tools. Sometimes I kill the CC by cutting it back, at or slightly below the soil line, and then replant right through the stubble adding the summer CC seeds to the basic oat/pea mix to create a new cocktail.
  • Regularly check and trim any of the CC’s, which surround your veggies, to prevent them from over topping and creating shade.   That said, I do sometimes allow for shading of crops like lettuce to help them withstand the August heat.         
  • Plan ahead to prepare beds for mid or late season planting.  My main storage carrot crops are planted mid-July.  Therefore, I’ll cut back the CC, below soil line, about a week prior to planting the carrots.
  • Plant a CC in any bed whose main crop has been harvested.  I pull garlic at the end of July and sow a CC cocktail into the bed that same day.  It will be at least 3’ tall before it is killed by the deep freezes of October/November, leaving thick protective mulch to overwinter on the bed.
  • Continue to apply a nutrient foliar spray to your CC’s as well as to your vegetable crops.   Spraying the CC’s will enhance their growth and effectiveness in creating healthy soil.

The simplest and easiest to use hand tool for cutting that I’ve found, is a Japanese serrated sickle.  It is light- weight, inexpensive and stays sharp for many years, even after using it to cut through the soil.  I obtain it at a local, for me, store but it can be ordered through the mail through Orchard Equipment Supply Company.

cover cropsI love all of the winterkill cover crops with which I’ve been working for many years.  Each has a variety of attributes, which add to the overall complexity and increase their multiple benefits.  This month, I want to highlight Sorghum Sudan grass (SS).  When looking at SS, it has many similarities to corn including its height, wide leaves and aerial roots.  

SS needs warm soil to germinate, loves heat, and is fast growing and drought tolerant.  It also deters root nematodes, which affect carrots.  I love that it is a great biomass producer, which can be used as mulch or an addition to the compost pile.  Plus, by cutting it back to a height of 6-15” it will encourage tillering (side shoots) and increased vegetative regrowth plus stimulate root growth.  Root length and mass increase after cutting.  Not only does this increase root sub-soiling action, but also it increases the amount of mycorrhizal activity in the soil. 

SS has the ability to form symbioses with an astounding number of 50 different mycorrhizal fungi, each of which helps improve soil diversity and health.   It’s a good idea to plant so that the SS has a full 3 months of growth, as this allows for maximum mycorrhizal hyphae and spore creation.  This will help insure a good supply of both spores and root-housed hyphae segments to overwinter in the soil.  Come spring, they will be ready to engage symbiotically with your newly planted crops.  All in all, SS is a great addition to diversify your CC cocktail or as a stand-alone crop.  

Start small and experiment.  The tremendous benefits that CC’s in combination with mycorrhizal fungi and other soil biology, will quickly become obvious to you and help you make a larger leap into the culture of cover cropping.

Time to send this off, eat diner, lock up the chickens, and prepare for tonight’s magic light show. 

But first, a reminder: I will be leading a Homesteading intensive on Friday, August 11 at the NOFA Summer Conference at Hampshire College.  It would be great to see you there.

** Refer to previous newsletter articles for more and background information.

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