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Alfalfa, barley, soybeans, and other summer cover crop experiments

Barley heads
Preliminary results are trickling in from this year's cover-crop experiments. I'll start with the least successful --- barley. Barley works fine as a fall-planted cover crop, assuming you have a way to kill the overwintering plants in the spring. And I'd read that you can also plant barley in spring as an early ground cover that heads up in time to let you plant summer vegetables afterwards. Unfortunately, I didn't give the species a very good test.

The barley pictured above went into the bare soil of the forest garden aisles, which had been dug down to near the level of the groundwater in order to mound up the surrounding beds. But soon after planting in early April, the aisles flooded and (I suspect) killed emerging seedlings. After that, our weather took an extreme turn in the other direction and turned hot and dry, making for bad spring-crop conditions.

I did plant another test bed in the main garden, but, unfortunately, that bed fell prey to Mark's weedeater. In his defense, baby barley looks just like grass. And I hadn't done a good job of weeding that area yet this spring, so my long-suffering husband wasn't entirely sure where the aisles ended and the beds began. To cut a long story short --- most of the barley planted there didn't manage to regrow and the bed instead went to weeds.

Alfalfa in aisles

I planted alfalfa at about the same time and in about the same place, but with more trepidation. However, to my surprise, the legume turned out to be much more hardy than the grain. The forest-garden aisle of alfalfa had to deal with the same flooding-then-parching conditions, and the control bed in the front garden also got accidentally mowed. But alfalfa in both spots managed to resprout and make at least a moderate stand. In fact, in areas where I planted alfalfa and protected them from the weedeater, the cover crop nearly looks ready to be cut as a come-again mulch producer. Not bad work for two months of growth!

Young soybean

Cover crop polycultureLegumes are one of the themes of this summer as well. Sure, I largely depend on animal manures to add nitrogen to our garden, but it never hurts to have a vegetative source of the high-demand nutrient. So I'm trying out soybeans in several locations ranging from rye stubble in prime soil beds to the pure clay that has been recently solarized. I'll keep you posted about the results.

In the photo to the right, you can actually see three different cover-crop species if you look closely. In addition to soybeans and scarlet runner beans (to train onto the trellis not visible above the picture), I also interplanted both millet and sorghum-sudangrass in this bed. I'm not sure whether the millet is actually coming up, but the sorghum-sudangrass is growing, albeit slowly. More on these warm-season grasses as the season progresses.

Buckwheat groundcover

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite summer cover crop, the old standby buckwheat. This non-grassy grain managed to sprout despite our recent drought and is pictured above filling in empty bed areas between young apple trees. Honestly, I wouldn't be at all surprised if, after trying six new species in 2015, I plant all buckwheat again next year. But stay posted for updates as they come down the pike!



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I can't recall having seen you mention trying or considering oilseed radish as a cover crop, but I thought I'd mention it because many small-scale vineyards use it. The roots naturally break up heavily compacted or clay-heavy soil and they also act as natural accumulators of a lot of micronutrients that are often lacking in the worst soil. They also are pretty good at out-competing weeds.

Vineyards typically till up the top few inches of soil to kill the crop (which I know is not an option for you), but I can't help but wonder if there might be a way to integrate them in to at least some parts of your weed control/soil improvement regimen. Might be worth some investigating.

Comment by Dave Marshall Fri Jun 12 11:32:46 2015

Dave --- Oilseed radishes are a great no-till cover crop! In fact, they're among my top five favorites and I wrote about them in depth in Homegrown Humus. But they're really a fall/winter crop, not a summer crop, which is the niche I'm talking about in this post.

(By the way, if you type a term like "oilseed radish" into the search box in the sidebar, you'll see all of our posts on the topic.)

Comment by anna Fri Jun 12 13:20:43 2015
Do you ever let the buckwheat go to grain? Or do you only do cover crop with it? I was thinking of putting in some buckwheat to try growing it as an actual crop. Our family is very fond of buckwheat pancakes, and being able to grow (and mill) my own flour for that would be nice. Any tips?
Comment by Kiina Fri Jun 12 13:25:08 2015
I was weeding our garden last weekend and noticed the crimson clover finally died back and went to seed in our garden. It was only left in a few locations since we rebuilt our beds the blooms were beautiful though.
Comment by Brian Fri Jun 12 14:01:13 2015

Kiina --- I haven't tried to harvest buckwheat from our plants. But from what I've read, the difficult part will be harvesting and then breaking the hull of the seed. I recommend these two books for further information: Small-Scale Grain Raising and Home-grown Whole Grains. Good luck!

Brian --- You might get lucky and have a naturally reoccurring winter cover crop the way my father does. I hope you'll keep me posted on weed pressure as the clover resprouts. I always wonder how much it competes with the vegetables you grow in between.

Comment by anna Sat Jun 13 14:12:44 2015
Late to comment here, but I wanted to mention that I am trying several of the same crops you are, with similar results. My millet doesn't seem to have germinated at all. My alfalfa is already on its second cutting. (I dry it and feed it to my goats as a small fraction of their hay. The chickens also devour the fresh leaves.) You didn't mention what variety of barley you tried; I planted both Schrene and Ethiopian, and the latter did MUCH better- earlier, thicker growth, and a better grain yield. I also have oilseed radishes in for the first time. Sounds like I'm on the wrong side of the season with them, though they have some pretty decent growth on them now. Hopefully they will seed up before they burn up. Of course I now plant buckwheat on your recommendation regularly! With predictably good results. Thanks for the info and inspiration.
Comment by Heather Wed Jun 17 10:34:45 2015