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

How to kill no-till cover crops

Winter-killed oilseed radishThe cover crop experimentation theme during our first year has been killing without tilling.  Traditional farmers use one of two techniques to demolish their cover crops --- they plow the greenery into the soil or they spray it will herbicides.  Since neither of those options is appropriate to my garden, I've had to try out several other methods, including:

I'd be curious to hear what your own experiences have been with killing cover crops without tilling them into the soil.  Am I missing any of the obvious choices?  Have you tried these techniques on cover crops I haven't mentioned and had successes or failures to report?  I'm still learning and can benefit from anyone's experiences at this point.

Our chicken waterer saves time with chicken chores so that I can experiment in the garden.

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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 tend to do the smother kill and weed-kill in my garden. I actually do not mind the re-sprouting. I just got back through and "chop and drop" where it needs to be done. Right now, the main "weed" I get that spreads is the wild sorrel....which my chickens love (especially the seed-tops), so I feed it to them. I am finding that pulling up the runners is really a nice way to semi-till....I might experiment with a bed or three of getting more of those in to a bed I am wanting to keep covered until the time I plant.
Comment by Geoffrey Wendel Thu Jun 30 08:09:43 2011
Weird question that's nagging my mind- could you eat an oilseed type radish?
Comment by Phil Thu Jun 30 10:25:36 2011

Geoffrey --- I've always wanted to chop and drop, but all of our weeds seem to be the type that do badly with that method. (Dandelions, violets, etc., will just send up new leaves quite happily all summer if you don't get the roots.) The grain cover crops seem to be similar, but anything that will mow kill should respond well to chop and drop.

Phil --- As far as I know, they aren't edible, although they're so beautiful that every fall visitor to my garden last year wanted to eat them. The seeds can be used to make oil, but Wikipedia says the oil is only good for biofuel, not eating. That said, I'm not so sure they're not edible, maybe just not very tasty?

Comment by anna Thu Jun 30 18:01:14 2011

I actually have that happen with a number of the "weeds"...I consider it a bonus. My soil is very sandy and acidic (up on a ridge of Tuscarora Sandstone just before it goes up the mountain...),so I am trying to get as much organic matter as I can into it. The soil also dries out quickly when exposed. The multiple crops of leaves are a welcome thing. (I have a bunch of Evening Primrose that I have been allowing to spread a bit that produces a nice batch of leaves for this. (they also make a nice addition to the salads...))

I figure it this way...the plants that break through the straw are obviously quite tough. I am guessing they are pulling up nutrients that I will want in the mulch layer of my garden...if they produce more, excellent. They MIGHT be competing with the other plants, but at the rate I am trimming them down, they will likely exhaust themselves in enough time, and their efforts improve my soil.

Comment by Geoffrey Wendel Fri Jul 1 07:55:22 2011

Your method does seem to be the standard permaculture way, but I've discovered that if you want the best yields from your garden, it's better to give your crop weedless space. Sure, your weeds are slowly building the soil, but they do compete with your crops. Instead, I rotate cover crops with vegetables, getting the best of both worlds --- competition free growing for my veggies and soil building in the interim.

How much your vegetables can handle competition tends to relate to how good your soil conditions are. So, if your soil is poor and really needs building, your veggies will have a hard time competing with your dynamic accumulators. That's the unfortunate result I got when I tried to intercrop comfrey with a nectarine in poor soil.

Of course, maybe I'm just too lazy (or the garden's too big) to cut the dynamic accumulators often enough. I can't seem to make it back through more often than once every two weeks, and that's really pushing it. Usually, each garden patch only gets weeded once every one or two months! (We grow every vegetable we eat all year, so it's a big garden.)

Comment by anna Fri Jul 1 09:52:05 2011

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.

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.

Comment by asaf Tue Oct 4 05:31:27 2016

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