The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Austrian winter peas

Winter peas and oats

Our winter cover crop experiments this year aren't completely limited to figuring out the best planting time.  We're also trying a new species --- Austrian winter peas.  This variety of field pea is supposed to reliably winterkill all the way to zone 6, so we shouldn't have to worry about weed problems in the spring.

I've mostly steered clear of legume cover crops since they serve a different role than grains and crucifers.  The latter do grab some of the free nitrogen that might otherwise wash away over the winter, but their primary purpose is to make lots of organic matter to improve your soil long term.  Legume cover crops have a different role --- to fix nitrogen out of the air and lower your fertilizer inputs.  I was most interested in soil building, so skipped the legumes at first.

I couldn't resist trying out Austrian winter peas, though, and not just because everyone was talking about how cool they are.  My primary purpose was to plant them in the chicken pasture to give our flock some tasty, high protein greenery at this time of year.  Strangely enough, my chickens seemed to prefer the oat leaves, although they may change their tune as winter progresses.  But since I was buying the seeds anyway, I figured I should try Austrian winter peas in the vegetable garden as well.

Chickens in oat pasture

Field peas grow best if mixed with a small grain (like oats) so that the peas have something to climb.  I noticed that my peas tended to pull the oats down a bit, perhaps negatively affecting how well the oats will grow.  But I've enjoyed the duo anyway because the peas started coming into their own this month, just as the oats slowed down.

The real question will be how well the Austrian winter peas break down in the spring, and how much they reduce my dependence on manure.  As Harvey Ussery pointed out in his awesome book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, if you keep adding off-farm compost or manure to supply your vegetable garden with nitrogen, you may eventually end up with toxic levels of phosphorus and potassium in your soil.  My soil is already quite rich in both of these nutrients, so it wouldn't hurt to dial back my manure applications and try to grow the more ephemeral nitrogen on site.

Our chicken waterer provides clean water after a hard day of foraging.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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