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Spring cover crops

Field peasLast year, I remember thinking that it was wasteful to have half of the garden fallow until May, with some beds being held open all the way until June.  Sounds like a spot for spring cover crops!

The goal for fall cover crops is usually weed suppression and soil building, but spring cover crops are often used to boost soil nitrogen so you don't need to add so much compost to the soil.  I've narrowed down our spring cover crop choices to one familiar candidate and one newbie:

  • Oats don't add nitrogen to the soil, but they can be planted much earlier than other spring cover crops.  Although soil temperature is variable from year to year, I suspect we'll achieve their recommended planting temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit in February or early March.  That will give the oats their full six to ten week growing season before I mow them down in mid to late April, and the leaves can decompose a bit and then provide mulch through the summer.
  • Field peas are a good source of nitrogen and their flowers are an early source of nectar for honeybees too.  Field pea residue breaks down quickly in the soil, so it's best to plant the legumes where I'm going to be direct-seeding summer crops and need bare soil.  I suspect we can plant field peas in early March (minimum soil temperature 41 degrees Fahrenheit) and give them a couple of months to grow before mowing them down in time to plant our summer crops.

Measuring soil temperatureSince I have about 35 pounds of oat seed leftover from the fall and only an expensive 1 pound of field pea seeds on their way from Johnny's Select Seeds, I suspect I'll plant mostly oats for my spring cover crop.  I do want to try at least one bed of oats and field peas together, though, since the two make a good duo --- the oats give the peas something to grow up, and when the cover crops are mowed down the high nitrogen peas give the mixture a C:N ratio that promotes more rapid decomposition.

At the moment, though, our soil temperature is hovering right around freezing (a little warmer in the sunny mule garden and a little colder in the shadiest end of the front garden), so I've got to wait a while before planting.

Our homemade chicken waterer takes the guesswork (and mess) out of backyard chicken care.


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If field peas and cowpeas are, as I suspect, the same, next time you are in Ohio you can pick them up at any farm supply store.
Comment by Errol Hess Fri Jan 28 09:44:42 2011
They're not the same --- field peas are an early spring crop while cow peas are a summer crop. However, I'm thinking of trying both of them, so I'll have to try to remember that!
Comment by anna Fri Jan 28 10:31:45 2011

http://rivermud.blogspot.com/2011/04/garden-cover-crop-field-trial-results.html

Plant the peas in the late fall and get pretty impressive coverage - I'm about to mow them for our last frost date and they are 2' tall. Haven't bloomed yet.

I also have a garden with early spring planted peas and it's not even in the same ballpark. Plants are maybe 5" tall. At most.

Comment by Swamp Thing Tue Apr 19 16:55:13 2011
It looks like you live on the Chesapeake Bay, which is north of us but also considerably warmer (especially in the winter.) From what I've read, the most cold-hardy field peas are Austrian winter peas (which looks to be what you grew), and even they can only survive temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which is relatively normal here. I love your cover crop experiment, though!
Comment by anna Tue Apr 19 17:36:21 2011

Yes, I've tried Austrian Field peas (most successful), cow peas (OK), NZ clover (bad), mammoth red clover (OK), crimson clover (bad), and berseem white clover (bad).

Mixing in oats with the field peas this fall....mice instantly got into the rows and tried to eat all the oats. Oh well.

Comment by River Mud Tue Oct 4 21:30:20 2011
I love seeing your rundown of what did and didn't work for you. I wasn't in love with crimson clover or cowpeas either. That said, my winter pea/oat combo this fall seems to be doing very well! Of course, I loved the oats by themselves, maybe Austrian winter peas are just icing on the cake?
Comment by anna Wed Oct 5 07:44:25 2011