Fitting cover crops into the garden ecosystem
Even if you allot
absolutely no extra growing area to cover crops,
chances are you can slide them into gaps and grow an appreciable amount
of organic matter. I didn't expand my garden after
learning about cover crops, but I soon found I could fit buckwheat
summer gaps and oats and oilseed radishes into winter gaps without
taking away space from my vegetables. In fact, as organic matter
levels increased in my garden beds, I realized I was getting higher
yields from the plots in vegetable production, and was able to cut back
my planting area and grow more cover crops. The cycle of
soil improvement continues.
As you add cover crops
to your planting cycle, you'll probably begin to see improvements in
your garden ecosystem that
far exceed the effects of organic matter accumulation. I've
noticed that spring seedlings seem to be healthier in beds that have
grown oats or oilseed radishes over the winter than in beds that have
simply been mulched with straw. Perhaps the reason is that the
living soil web—microorganisms that feed on the sugars put off by plant
roots and, in return, provide micronutrients to the plants—is heartier
beds where something has been green and growing recently. Or
maybe the effect is the result of sulfur-related compounds emitted by
radishes that kill nematodes and other bad microorganisms in the
soil. The increase in pollinators around the farm as a result of
buckwheat flowers is easier to decipher, but who knows how many other
relationships like this are active in the garden ecosystem while being
invisible to our untrained eyes?
As much as I've enjoyed my
cover crop journey over the last few years,
I'm sure I still have a lot to learn. Are there cover crops
chickens will enjoy even more than oilseed radishes? Can I close
the homestead fertility loop by growing my own straw and compost in
addition to using my current, simple methods of increasing organic
matter right in
the garden beds?
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