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

Mow- and smother-kill cover crops

Annual ryegrass

I'm a big fan of autumn cover crops (especially oats and oilseed radishes), but I'm starting to feel like cover crops in the spring are more worry than benefit.  The trouble is that most of the fall crops that didn't winter-kill (annual ryegrass and barley) and the cover crops I'm trialing this spring (oats and field peas) don't mow-kill very well.  As the main spring planting date approaches, I've ended up having to resort to more time-consuming measures to get these cover crops out of the way without tilling.
Smothering ryegrass
At the end of March, I cut the barley and ryegrass as close to the ground as possible and topped the beds off with an inch of manure and then a heavy coating of mulch.  This method was 95% effective for the barley and about 75% effective for the ryegrass, although in both cases the beds developed a ring of living cover crops (easy to mow repeatedly and turn into part of the aisles.)  I was left hand-weeding the plants that were still poking up out of the middle of beds, a process that is quite easy with barley but nearly impossible with ryegrass.  I suspect I may have to resort to a kill mulch to get rid of the ryegrass, which won't be a big deal since I've planned late potatoes to go in those beds and they'll enjoy the extra organic matter.  Still, it's a bit nerve-wracking to see greenery where I need to plant shortly, especially since two months of flooding means we still can't drive the truck off the farm to pick up more compost and mulch.

Pulling up oatsOur spring oats and field peas bounced right back when I tried to mow-kill them, but since I'd put the beds' compost down when planting, I didn't have enough allotted to smother these spring beds the way I did the overwintering fall cover crops.  Instead, I've been ripping up the oats and peas and laying them sideways and upside down across the bed --- pretty easy since oats come out of the ground without much effort.  The beds that I dealt with during a hot, dry spell now have a straw-like mulch of dead oats on top, but I might have to reweed the beds I dealt with during a rainy period.

Luckily, all of the extra mulching we did this fall means the other garden beds are in prime condition and I have time to mess around with experimental cover crops.  Once again, Mark was right --- it was worth every penny we spent on mulch last year!

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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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Are you keeping track of the various costs? Doing a cost-benefit analysis? Tracking time spent? Time-benefit analysis?
Comment by Errol Hess Mon May 2 07:47:21 2011
Do you mean for the cover crops? The mulch? I only keep general track of things like this for the garden, keeping an eye on how long it takes to weed each bed on average. Unfortunately, doing soil tests for each bed individually to find out real data is out of my price range.
Comment by anna Mon May 2 08:04:24 2011

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