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

Fitting cover crops into the garden ecosystem

Fitting cover crops into the garden

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 into 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.

In your own garden, I recommend starting small until you learn the intricacies of each cover-crop species you're using.  Once you settle on a few species that work for you, you'll become adept at keeping an eye out for garden areas going to waste.  Did your cucumbers succumb to blight a month before you'd planned to pull them out and seed fall carrots?  A perfect opportunity for a round of buckwheat!  Is a bed of green beans eaten up by potato beetles?  Go ahead and pull it out and plant some oilseed radishes for winter biomass accumulation.

Oilseed radish

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 in 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?

Chicks eating oilseed radishes

Cover Crop ebookAs 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? 

Homegrown Humus sums up my experiences to date, but I'm sure there's more to learn.  Download the ebook free on Amazon today (or email me for a free pdf copy), then send me updates on your own cover crop experiments.  I'm looking forward to updating this draft with many more cover crop adventures in years to come.

This post is part of our Homegrown Humus lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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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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I'm guessing that since today is Jan 30, I missed the opportunity to get "Homegrown Humus" for free? I clicked on the link to e-mail you, but my computer will not allow me to set up Microsoft outlook. Is there somewhere else on the site with your e-mail address that I am just missing?
Comment by April Wed Jan 30 13:21:52 2013
April --- I could still slide you into the free period. :-) My email address is
Comment by anna Wed Jan 30 14:39:59 2013

Today is the first time I have had a chance to get back to your awesome site. Thank you for the kind thought of fitting me in to the free period, even though I never contacted you about it. I am a teacher at small private school where we all teach a little bit of everything and the end of January was the end of our first semester. It was also the day the other full-time teacher and I realized that several of our seniors need electives credits and both of us would need to create a class for the next semester that started in less than a week. My new class has kept me CRAZY BUSY!! My husband teases that I have been going through withdrawal symptoms from your blogs. Thank goodness for Spring Break :-)

Thank you again, April

Comment by April Connett Fri Apr 5 21:13:42 2013

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