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

Filling garden gaps with cover crops

Cover crops

Buckwheat cover cropI've been very surprised by how many cover crops I was able to slip into the garden this year without adding any extra growing area or putting in fewer table crops.  I never felt like I was leaving  beds empty in previous years (except in the winter), but I often had to save a bed for a month or two for succession planting of summer crops or for fall garlic.  This year, I filled those gaps with buckwheat and/or cowpeas and was surprised to realize my plantings ended up treating a quarter of the garden without specifically setting aside beds to stay fallow.

Meanwhile, I'm already seeding oats and oilseed radishes into beds that I know I won't use again until 2012.  Buckwheat is nice, but the fall cover crops are the real winners, adding much more organic matter, cutting down on weeds (meaning less work in the spring), and keeping the garden vibrant during what used to feel like the downward slide of the garden year.  I have to admit, Garden pie chartthough, that the best part about winter cover crops is that there's a relatively narrow window in which I can plant them --- September 15 is the bitter end for the ones I've found will reliably winterkill --- so I'm forced to keep the garden "clean", pulling up that sweet corn and those buggy beans as soon as they stop producing.  An eighth of the garden is now under winter cover, which means I don't have to touch those beds again until spring --- how restful is that?

I thought you might enjoy seeing a mathematical snapshot of our garden (minus the woody perennials).  Looks like I have four empty beds --- shame on me!

Our chicken waterer is the low-work, squeaky clean solution for the backyard flock.

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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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Anna, do you do anything other than water your cover crops? Do you weed, fertilize, or prune them at all or do you just let them grow wild until the winter kill? Also, I know you have issues with lack of sun (I have the same dilemma on our north-facing mountain property - zero direct sun in winter) - do your cover crops grow with limited sun?
Comment by Sarah Thu Aug 25 12:15:14 2011

Since our winter cover crops die naturally when really cold weather hits, they're pretty much no work. I'll pull out a huge weed if I see one, but the cover crops tend to outcompete the weeds pretty fast as long as I seed them thick and the weeds aren't perennials. That said, you'd have to do a lot of experimenting to figure out how to kill cover crops down your way --- I suspect none of them will naturally winter kill.

With buckwheat, I pull the plants up as soon as they start to set seeds. The plants are so easy to pull that the process takes perhaps two minutes per bed. So, that should work for you, even if you can't find a winter cover crop that reliably winterkills.

We did fertilize some experimental cover crops this spring, but that wasn't necessary and we won't do it again. No need to prune them.

Shade doesn't seem to be a problem as long as I start the cover crops in the shadiest location a bit earlier to give them time to bulk up before cold hits. Since they don't have to make fruits, they'll still grow in the shade, though perhaps less than in full sun.

Good luck! I hope you do experiment with cover crops and post about it on your blog because I'd be very curious to hear which ones work well in the Deep South.

Comment by anna Thu Aug 25 17:18:14 2011
Oh, I forgot to include my location in my comment, but this is Sarah in Boulder Creek CA (we are the folks that recently bought land in NE Tennessee, which I think you mentioned is relatively close to you). :) Although I don't think our CA location would reliably winterkill a cover crop either. I have some raised beds that I'd like to try this method with - partly for something to look at during our dreary (cold, rainy) winters and to add organic matter. I think I'll try buckwheat!
Comment by Sarah Thu Aug 25 20:16:22 2011
I should have noticed the "h" at the end of your name! I thought you were our regular commenter Sara who lives way down south. My mistake!
Comment by anna Fri Aug 26 07:55:26 2011

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