Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Cover Crops, Not Just for Farmers


Over the past couple years I've been experimenting with cover crops in my garden. So far I've planted: crimson clover, hairy vetch, winter rye, buckwheat, fall cover crop mix, spring cover crop mix and various other legumes. Cover crops play a variety of roles in your garden. Use them to protect soil during the winter, they prevent erosion while improving it. They can also help control nematodes and mitigate other soil issues. They work beautifully as a suppression crop on a newly made garden keeping the weeds at bay.
Crimson clover is my favorite, it's a beautiful cover crop. The first time it bloomed in my garden 2 years ago I knew I'd be using it for years to come. It grows quickly, smothers weeds and brings up nutrients for future crops - all this while looking fabulous!
This past winter I experimented with an overwintering cover crop mix. It contained: winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover. It started growing last fall and reached a height of about 6 inches. Throughout the winter it went dormant and protected the soil. This spring as soon as it warmed up slightly the rye started growing. Soon enough the vetch joined in and before long it was almost 4 feet tall.
I chopped it down last week as the vetch was just beginning to bloom. Using pruners, I cut it down in 6-8 inch segments and then went to work digging it into the soil. Before long my neighbor came over inquiring if I was wanting to work up the soil. He'd just purchased a new toy and was itching to use it. A few minutes he returned with his new tiller and starting working the cover crop into the soil. Mr Chiots came out and did the rest while I chatted with our neighbor.
I source my cover crop seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds. They have a great selection of single crops and mixtures, just about everything you'll ever need. Here's a great chart from them to help you chose the right crop for your application (click on the image to view larger, readable version that you can save if you want to).
It's quite amazing the difference a cover crop will make when it comes to improving the soil. It takes patience because you have to wait for it to grow, buy it's certainly an inexpensive way to amend large areas of soil. I'm looking forward to trying a few other varieties. I currently have mustard seeds and I'm looking forward to trying a turnip as well. Now that I have a new large garden they'll come in handy for smothering weeds on the newly cleared land and they'll improve the soil in the process so it will be ready when it comes time to grow vegetables!

Do you ever use cover crops in your garden?