Cover Crops for Spring, Summer, and Fall

Reader Contribution by Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt and Wild Abundance
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The raised garden beds at Wild Abundance are built in the shape of a large leaf. The veins of the leaf pattern are walking paths and the diagonal beds are either growing edibles or cover crops. In these no-till beds, the earth is soft, the color of light roasted coffee, and the soil is easily scooped up with bare hands.

“Reach in and grab a handful,” says Natalie Bogwalker, who built these beds five years ago when establishing a site for her permaculture and primitive skills school called Wild Abundance. “We don’t till in this vegetable garden because soil health is of utmost important to us. In nature soil layers are very important because different microbes live in different layers.”

“When you till, you mix up all of these layers and destroy your soil structure, along with the little tunnels that worms, roots, and insects make. These tunnels, and a soil that has aerated structure, is much better at supporting life than soil that has been blended and fluffed. When fluffy soil gets wet, it is more likely to lose air pockets than soil with structure. This is how we grow strong roots, and that is how we get healthy vegetables.”

“My mother used to say, Mother Earth doesn’t like to be naked,” says Bogwalker. “Over the years, I have figured out how to keep cover crops, production crops, and mulch covering the soil at all times. This seems to have a magical effect on the soil, and therefore the plants.”

Over the years, Bogwalker and the Wild Abundance team have honed in on a few go-to cover crops to plant throughout the growing seasons. These cover crops improve the health of the soil—adding nitrogen, and other nutrients and organic matter to increase the soil’s fertility — while preventing the soil from being densely compacted by heavy rains. They keep undesirable weeds out of the garden too, by out-competing them.

In these no-till beds, microorganisms thrive, creating an underground ecosystem that adds nutrition back to the earth. Cover crops feed the beneficial microorganism ecosystem. 

Early Spring Cover Crops (sown February to early April)

Austrian Winter Peas: Sometimes called “black peas,” or “field peas,” are leggy legumes that add a tremendous amount of nitrogen into the soil. They also have the important benefit of being edible. The tender growing tips of the leaves are excellent in salads.

Oats: This lush grassy plant makes an excellent cover crop, adding biomass to your garden. Quick to germinate, oats can fill a garden bed and help to suppress weeds from infiltrating into the garden. Oats can also make good medicine. Oatstraw and Milky Oats tincture are important ones for settling nerves.

Summer Cover Crops (sown mid-May through July)

Cow peas: These diminutive black-eyed peas are excellent nitrogen fixers, cover the soil very effectively, and are beautiful, growing up to 2 feet tall. The dried beans are tasty when cooked (when compared with normal black-eyed-peas), but if you allow the plants to get to maturity, you lose some of the benefits of using them as a cover crop.

Buckwheat: Buckwheat is a fantastic summer-time cover crop because it matures in only 6-8 weeks. For Bogwalker, it’s the perfect “placeholder” because of its rapid growth, adding life to the earth in a short time between crop rotations.

Sorghum Sudan Grass: There is nothing like Sorghum Sudan Grass to add biomass to the garden. It’s tall, shooting up to 12 feet in height, and is amazing for adding green-nutrition back into your soil.  It is extremely aggressive, so, unless you are tilling it in, you are not going to easily remove this from your garden until winter.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t cut it back and sew winter peas, winter rye, or brassicas in between.

Winter Cover Crops (sown late August through October)

Brassicas like Rape and Mustard Greens: These are cold hardy, green, and edible crops that thrive through the cold months (especially if covered) and produces well into the spring.

Mix with Austrian Winter Peas and Winter Rye for an excellent winter-time cover crop.

In order to gain maximum benefit from cover crops, cut them back when they are in full flower, and either mix them into your bed, or use the tops to mulch an already green-growing crop. The nitrogen in your cover crop will literally act as “green manure,” and water soluble nitrogen will easily pass from your green mulch into your green plants with the help of rains or watering.

If your cover crop was successful, and crowded out all of the weeds, you can go ahead and plant your new crop right into the cut cover crop. If your timing is right (with your cover crop in flower, cut very low to the ground, and is one of the crops listed) you can plant right into the undisturbed roots of your cover crop.  As the roots die back, they will feed the roots of your new plants, and will leave behind root tunnels coated in fabulous organic matter and plant food. Use a Dutch hoe to cut the crop to the roots. 

“Healthy plants need healthy soil,” says Bogwalker. “Healthy soil is a living thing, and needs to be fed, just like we do. The main food that we use to feed our soil is cover crops.  The most important thing that you can do to improve your soil and the health of your garden is to implement a cover crop plan.”

For more information onWild Abundance, and to see more photos of the garden, go Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt is a student with Wild Abundance, a writer, gardener and beekeeper in Asheville, North Carolina. Check out her other articles written for Mother Earth News here.

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