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Increasing Days in Living Cover through Innovative Approaches to Spring-Sown Cover Crops: Three Approaches

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 November Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director

While spring-planted cover crops is not an uncommon practice on organic farms and gardens, many farmers and market gardeners are experimenting with extending cover crop overlaps with cash crops through the creative use of easy-to-manage species (field peas, buckwheat and oats, all of which can be ordered through the annual NOFA Bulk Order) and leaving them in the ground until just prior to bed planting, or even allowing them to share bed space with cash crops or new perennial plantings.

Emerging research on soil microbiology and soil carbon sequestration show that the number of days/year that soil has living roots in the ground with photosynthesis happening (i.e. “days in living cover”), the density of living plant roots, and the diversity of species of plants present are all contributing factors in increasing soil health and building soil organic matter / soil organic carbon.

Ellena discusses the oats and peas cover crop, where patches have been cleared for new rhubarb crowns
Ellena discusses the oats and peas cover crop, where patches have
been cleared for new rhubarb crowns. (Northampton, MA)

Ellena Baum manages the Giving Garden for Grow Food Northampton, which donates thousands of pounds of produce annually to area food pantries and soup kitchens. She has been putting into practice a broad range of regenerative methods to build soil health in the Giving Garden, which doubles as an education space.

One of the interesting approaches she took this year was to plant an area going into rhubarb with oats and peas, and, knowing that the rhubarb plants would remain quite small in their first year (and that some crowns might not take) she cleared patches of cover crop in the bed for the crowns, leaving the rest of the stand for an extra month or so to keep photosynthesizing. “We planted oats and peas and then cut away to create a spot for each rhubarb plant, and I kept each rhubarb planting spot clear of cover crop as they grew,” she said.

In early June as the rhubarb plants came up, she covered the oats and peas alongside the rhubarb plants with cardboard and applied compost on top of it, terminating the cover crop by sheet mulching but leaving the roots in place.

“The rhubarb didn’t do as well as I’d hoped-- less than half of my rhubarb crowns didn’t actually come up,” she said, attributing the issue to not having watered quite enough in the spring, but “the part that feels exciting is that I was able to have green cover for a long time and let the oats and peas do their job while the rhubarb was establishing.”

These insights from the scientific community and healthy soils movement have spurred growers to start experimenting with ways to increase living root density and species diversity on as many beds and fields as possible.  

She plans to try again next year to fill in the empty spots. “I’m excited to eventually have a good stand of rhubarb for the school groups that come through the garden because it’s an area where people often walk over—having a nice stand of rhubarb there will encourage them to stay in the path; and once established, rhubarb is more resilient than small annual vegetables. But my main reason for wanting it there is that it’s fun to cut little pieces of the stem and hand them around for the school kids to try.”

Oats, peas and a little buckwheat at Wild Browse Farm in Wendell, MA
Oats, peas and a little buckwheat at
Wild Browse Farm in Wendell, MA

Up in Wendell, homesteader and longtime NOFA/Mass employee Sharon Gensler has been practicing intercropping with cover crops for many years at Wild Browse Farm & Sustainability Center, a sustainable homestead and community living space. Her approach is to plant oats and peas as early as possible in spring, usually at the beginning of April. “They get to about 12 inches high by the time I put in my tomatoes,” she explains. “When I plant, I first cut the cover crop either all the way back to the soil line or about 2 inches high if I want some of the cover crop to come back. Often times I let the cover crop regrow among certain crops like summer squash.”

For later midseason crops, like a second planting of summer squash or storage carrots, the oats and peas can be 3 feet tall by the time she cuts it down, leaving it as mulch to keep the soil covered.

After a spring crop is done or in areas where there will be a very late crop, she uses buckwheat, which is very easy to terminate and which she loves to have growing around the homestead because it attracts bees and beneficial insects.

(To read more about Sharon’s homestead cover cropping practices, check out this 2018 article, Homestead Reflections: Feed the Soil with Cover Crops).

At a slightly larger scale, Laura Davis (NOFA/Mass Board President and Soil Technical Advisor) also uses oats and peas and buckwheat for specific cover crop strategies on her 3-acre vegetable farm: Long Life Farm in Hopkinton, MA.

 Field Peas, Buckwheat and Oats at Long Life Farm in Hopkinton, MA
 Field Peas, Buckwheat and Oats at Long Life Farm
in Hopkinton, MA

For beds she is not planning to plant until around Memorial Day she seeds field peas in March, raking the beds to incorporate the seeds. When it’s time to plant, she mows them down with the lawnmower and uses the BCS rotary implement to kick dirt up on top of the field peas from the pathways. Some of the beds she then solarizes before planting, but for single-row crops she often plants right into the mown cover crop immediately, following planting with weedmat in the paths that covers part of the beds.  Some cover crop regenerates in the area not covered by the weedmat, but Laura doesn’t find that the low-level regenerating cover crop impacts cash crop performance.

For some beds, especially later crops, Laura plants a solid stand of buckwheat that she pulls immediately before planting in order to have living cover growing for as long as possible up to transplanting. Buckwheat is ideal for this, because it is so easy to terminate by hand. “It just takes me 15-20 minutes per bed to pull it up” she explained (her beds are 100 feet long and 3 feet wide). “The buckwheat is usually 3 feet tall by the time I pull it up, and I then toss it in the pathway as mulch.” The buckwheat mulch doesn’t last very long, though, so she follows it with either heavy-duty weed mat or leaves to keep the pathways covered.

For some beds, especially later crops, Laura plants a solid stand of buckwheat that she pulls immediately before planting in order to have living cover growing for as long as possible up to transplanting. Buckwheat is ideal for this, because it is so easy to terminate by hand. “It just takes me 15-20 minutes per bed to pull it up” she explained (her beds are 100 feet long and 3 feet wide). “The buckwheat is usually 3 feet tall by the time I pull it up, and I then toss it in the pathway as mulch.” The buckwheat mulch doesn’t last very long, though, so she follows it with either heavy-duty weed mat or leaves to keep the pathways covered.

To purchase your cover crops in time for spring seeding (and to support NOFA at the same time), check out the NOFA Bulk Order! We carry all of the cover crops mentioned in this article in both farm and garden quantities, and we source organically-grown cover crops (whenever possible, see product descriptions) from reputable suppliers like Fedco and Progressive Grower. Baystate Organic Certifiers reviews our bulk order each year to ensure that all items are allowed for certified organic farms or restricted (see product descriptions). Ordering period opens January 1st—place your order by February 1stand pickup at your nearest distribution site is in the second week of March!

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