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Warm-winter cover-crop question

Straw covering seedsI got a great comment from asaf this week, and I'd like to answer it here bit by bit just in case another Southerner is considering a similar cover-crop experiment.

"I have about 1/5 acre of weedy ground that I plant to cover crop over winter. Below is my current plan. I would love to hear some feedback on this. I do not have any machinery but can pay for such services if justified.

"Goals: weed suppression, soil improvement, erosion control. Crop: 1. oats/vetch/clover. 2. oats for straw.

"The ground will be lightly plowed after the first rains in mid October. I plan to hand-broadcast the seeds and need a good solution for how to cover them afterwards."

I've had good luck simply sprinkling a light coating of straw over the ground after broadcasting cover-crop seeds. The straw is enough to confuse the birds and keep the seeds damp as they germinate, but not enough to prevent the seedlings from growing toward the light. The photo above, from Homegrown Humus, shows the density of straw I recommend.

Now, back to asaf....

"In the spring, I plan to kill the cover crop by cutting it down with a scythe, allowing it to smother itself under its own cuttings below a layer of straw harvested by the grain rows.

"Essentially, I will be creating a 1/5 acre compost pile that is low enough to not necessitate turning and covered by straw on top to preserve moisture and smother the cover crop.

"I plant to plant a variety of vegetables into this. The bulk will be corn into the vetch rows, and peanuts into the pure oat rows. Might do a batch of radishes before the peanuts as a quick spring crop to suppress nematodes."

Unfortunately, smother-killing is going to be a tough call for the species mixtures you plan. Most clovers and vetches are perennials, which means they'll grow back vigorously after cutting. And in your Deep South location, the oats aren't going to naturally winter-kill for you the way they do here.

In your shoes, I'd recommend some combination of the following:

  • Crimson clover flowerYour pure-oats area will be the easiest to manage. If you wait until the oats achieve full bloom and then mow them very close to the ground, they will hopefully die for you. I haven't done this myself since our oats naturally winter-kill, but we use this method with rye with good success.
  • If you tweak your legume species a bit, you might have better luck ensuring they perish on command. Crimson clover is an annual that is reputed to mow-kill reliably at bloom. I haven't tried that myself, but my father (in zone 8) has told me that his crimson clover naturally dies after going to seed, then the seeds don't sprout back until the fall. So you might get away with letting crimson clover become a no-work, winter cover crop that comes back year after year.
  • If all else fails, you can solarize your cover crops after cutting them close to the ground in the spring. This is probably more realistic on your scale than the kill mulches I use on smaller expanses of plants-that-refuse-to-die.

I hope that helps, and I also hope you'll report back with some pictures and notes as your experiment progresses! I adore cover-crop experiments and would love to see how yours pans out.

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Just an idea, if you can somehow harvest the vetch/clover/oats, it is absolutely marvelous hay for goats. Many goat owners would pay a good price for it because it suits a goat's nutritional needs so well.
Comment by Another Julie Wed Oct 5 18:09:11 2016
If you are fielding cover crop questions, could you please speak to the compatibility of that concept with no-till gardening (Back to Eden concept with wood chips). I live in the north with great availability of wood chips. I'm not certain how to combine the two methods. Thank you!
Comment by merryann Wed Oct 5 21:15:31 2016

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime