Happy Leap Day! Don’t you feel lucky to have been given another? Luck always makes me think of clover, four leafed of course. Clover makes me think of...leprechauns?…Ireland?…nope. Manure. Green Manure of course.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the Green Manure issue. I’ve used just one of the myriad of cover crops. Only the Red Clover. You may be asking, “Why? Why have you not taken advantage of a centuries tested approach to extending the fertility and productivity of our growing spaces?” The answer would be one word. Ignorance.
I simply do not know enough about cover crops to warrant sewing my gardens with fava beans or Buckwheat every year. It seems to me that cover crops may be a farmer’s tool not as much a gardener’s tool.
The distinction to me is this. A farmer uses the most land he is able to grow the most crops he is able to provide food for the most people he is able. In order to achieve this, he is generally more interested only in the crops as a whole, not individual plants. He has an interest in each plant but he is readily willing to sacrifice plants in order to harvest a more productive crop.
A gardener uses every space they are able to grow the plants that he loves to provide food, plants, or flowers. Because a garden is usually a hobby or a fancy, the gardener is often allowed far more liberties to experiment, choices for variety, and latitude in actual results.
I think that farmers and gardeners both probably love what they do, if they didn’t they would probably go to University or deliver pizza. It’s far to difficult an undertaking to do day in and day out, year after year, without some emotional, financial, or viable return. But that’s just my opinion.
So, as a gardener, not a farmer, for a long time I resisted the “cover crop” literature, until I could ignore it no longer. Two years ago, I was pricked in conscience. As a steward of the land I have been given use of, it’s important to me to make the best of this soil, to ensure future use. So, as a gardener, even I must overcome my ignorance and use the tools provided naturally to extend fertility.
On this Leap Day, let’s take a leap at cover crops and green manure. Here is what I understand. Cover crops are used for three primary purposes:
- As a stabilizer of nitrogen in soil for access by future crops
- As a means to stop soil erosion
- As a way to break up the soil, allowing it to retain moisture and nutrients
- Tilled into the soil as organic matter, thus composting it
- Weed suppression
- Some flowering varieties are used to provide forage for bees and other pollinators
I’m going to tackle a few of these. There are many good articles out there about green manure, Unfortunately, many of them require advanced degrees in geekology. As I am but a freshman geek, I’ve been able to discern just a fraction of what there really is to know about cover crop uses. But here goes.
We want to fix or stabilize nitrogen in our soil so that our plants can utilize it. If we don’t do this, nitrogen is depleted and more and more fertilizer will be required until eventually our soil is devoid of nutrients. So, in order to avoid the flight of the Joads, we need to fix the nutrients there. A short list of plants that are good for this includes:
- Berseem Clover
- Mustard or Turnips
- Spring Oats
- Black Medic (this is kind of expensive)
- Crimson clover
At this point you’re wondering, “Am I supposed to grow these in the place of the vegetables I want to grow”? That’s not necessary. It could be as simple as moving your plants around your garden from year to year in order to utilize the properties of a cover crop. In other words, if you plant cucumbers here this year, put your beans there next year, turnips the next and snow peas the next. Year five, this bed will be ready for cucumbers again.
Another thing you could try is in the fall after you’ve removed your main crops, sew one of the clovers. Allow this to overwinter and in the spring till it under. Clover and hairy vetch have dainty flowers that provide forage for bees and other pollinators that when they get accustomed to finding food, will be apt to return when you need your squash and cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants pollinated. Score!
Other cover crops to consider:
- Japanese Millet
- Sorghum or Sudangrass
- Rape, turnips, kale
Next year I’m using Hairy Vetch and Mustard. I enjoy flowers and I can use the mustard for greens and other things. Win-win.
By properly using cover crops I gain short term enjoyment, forage for pollinators and long term nutritional value. Win-win-win!
Non-believers feel free to substitute “nature”, “science” or whatever god you serve in this next bit.
God has given me an arsenal to combat the depletion of essential conditions for my garden. I would be remiss to not use what I’ve been given. Through crop rotation and cover crops, I can ensure long term soil and crop viability. Isn’t that lucky?Clover is from the Father just like the rain and eggplants are.
Have a paisley Leap Day. Let’s do this again in four years!~KeriAnne