Cover Crops on Urban Farms

Find out why cover cropping isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. These city farmers have adapted the practice to suit their unique challenges.

Bee-friendly, nitrogen-fixing clover grows in the pathways of Fisheye Farms’ garden beds. 
Photo by Brian Allnutt

Jon Miller is a retired union representative for city workers who’s in his second career as an urban farmer in Detroit. Like a lot of growers, he’s excited about the possibilities of cover crops for regenerating soil and reducing his reliance on more cumbersome off-farm inputs, such as compost and fertilizer. However, as Miller says, “This whole field of cover crops doesn’t address urban farming,” and he’s had trouble delivering on the promise of cover crops on his farm.

Cover crops — also known as “green manures” — are plants that aren’t grown for harvest, but instead for a number of other benefits, including fixing nitrogen, controlling weeds, adding organic matter, attracting pollinators, and feeding soil organisms, which, along with plant roots, emit various substances that help bind soil particles together to build good structure. Miller’s primary attempt at using them in his own growing spaces — which are 4,000 and 11,000 square feet in size — involved seeding low-growing white clovers in the pathways between beds. Unfortunately, the clover invaded his planting beds and turned into a weed problem. And yet, compost has been unable to provide the soil improvement he needs on degraded urban soil. “I’ve laid down 20 to 30 yards of it a year,” he says. “But you look a couple years later, and it hardly looks like you put anything down.”

Miller’s predicament — desperately needing to improve his soil, but being unable to incorporate cover crops into a highly intensive system — is common on urban farms. Growers struggle with space constraints, lack of large equipment to efficiently manage covers, and the need to grow crops, such as salad mix and spinach, that aren’t easy to grow with cover crops. However, covers offer obvious benefits for urban farmers. Naim Edwards, a Michigan State University researcher beginning a project on urban soils in Detroit, says urban farmers are dealing with compacted soils that contain high levels of debris and low organic matter. There’s also the expense — sometimes thousands of dollars a year — and the logistical difficulty of bringing in compost or manure.

Cover crop management can include irrigating, mowing, weeding plants from areas where they’re not wanted, and then killing and incorporating them into the soil. “For some folks, it’s just too daunting of a mental task to try to coordinate any energy around that,” Edwards says. “And for others, there’s some skepticism around scale.” Many of these farmers handle complex operations that may also involve a second job. No wonder some decide urban cover crops aren’t worth the trouble and instead call in another load of compost.

Andy Chae has both delivered pizzas and washed dishes in addition to running Fisheye Farms with his partner, Amy Eckert, who works a side job as a waitress. Like Miller, they’re trying to use clover in the pathways of their main field, which measures about 7,600 square feet. Using low-growing Dutch or New Zealand white clovers in pathways is an entry point for many growers. These bee-friendly, nitrogen-fixing plants can provide a reservoir of moisture, nitrogen-enriched soil, fungi, and other soil biota that crops can potentially tap into from the surrounding beds. Farmers can also under-sow them beneath taller plants, such as brassicas and solanums, or simply allow them to invade beds where it’s not a problem.



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