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Autumn cover crops

Shadows on the gardenAs the days shorten, the sun quickly dips behind the hill and provides only a smattering of sunlight to our upper garden.  I took this picture yesterday at 11:30 am when a third of the upper garden was still in shadow --- no wonder the summer plants like okra are starting to give up the ghost despite this garden's prime soil.

Since the front garden is mostly out of the running until April or May, I decided to see whether I could put at least some of those chilly months to good use by growing cover Buckwheat flowerscrops.  Cool weather cover crops need around 6 to 10 weeks to produce optimal biomass, and our first killing frost is due anytime between early and late October.  Planting cover crops now is another gamble on a warm fall, but any growth at all will be appreciated.

As you may recall, I have four experimental cover crops already planted in various parts of the garden, seeded between mid August and the first of September.  Here are my early thoughts on their productivity:

  • Oat cover cropOats - So far, I'm very happy with the growth of oats, which took to our waterlogged back garden soil like ducks to water.  The plants are knee high, but have fallen in on themselves a bit, perhaps because I planted them too close together or gave them too much fertility.  Despite the lodging, there is clearly a lot of biomass already above ground, and weeds are nonexistent.
  • Buckwheat - My second planting redeemed itself in the upper garden, where the buckwheat is twice as tall as the contemporaneously planted oats.  Our honeybees and wild bumblebees are lapping up the nectar, making buckwheat the most versatile summer cover crop, even if it failed in the waterlogged back garden.
  • Oilseed radishOilseed Radishes - In just four weeks, this cover crop has seemingly produced as much biomass as the neighboring oats which have been in the ground half again as long.  I can tell that any weed that had the nerve to sprout in the radish beds has long ago choked and died.
  • Annual ryegrassAnnual Ryegrass --- I put in a few beds of ryegrass on a whim at the same time I planted the radishes.  The ryegrass beds look like a pretty lawn, but seem to have produced significantly less bulk than the neighboring radishes and oats.  Annual ryegrass is the least likely to winterkill in zone 6, so I may have to deal with resprouting ryegrass in the spring.  On the positive side, wet soil didn't phase the ryegrass one bit.

This week, I put in more oats, radishes, and ryegrass in the front garden, skipping the frost sensitive buckwheat since I'm already pushing the envelope.  I scattered cover crop seeds on the few sweet potato beds not filled with garlic, slipped cover crops in between squash plants soon to keel over, and even seeded an understory below buggy beans and fading okra.  Despite the new cool, wet weather, I went ahead and spread a thin layer of damp compost over the seeds to hasten their sprouting.  I'll let you know how much mulch each crop leaves behind on the soil surface once the real cold weather hits.

Our homemade chicken waterer gives chickens something to peck at other than each other.


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