Using Green Manure

Try this planting combination around your crops to protect your vegetables and the soil around them.

| January 2016

Young squash

While the young squash plants are getting established, the oat/pea green manure keeps right on growing.

Photo by Will Bonsall

With more than forty years of experience redefining gardening's boundaries, author Will Bonsall shows how readers can eliminate the use of off-farm inputs like fertilizers, minerals, and animal manures by practicing a purely veganic, or plant-based, agriculture-not for strictly moral or philosophical reasons, but because it is more ecologically efficient and makes good business sense.

In Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) he offers readers in-depth information on growing, harvesting, and processing an incredibly diverse variety of food crops. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Green Manures.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS STORE: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical Self-Reliant Gardening

Creative Combinations

I want to share an exciting idea with you, as it combines features of both green manuring and companion cropping; moreover it builds up the soil at the same time that a food crop is growing there. Start by considering squash or pumpkin: a sprawling heavy feeder that cannot be planted much before Memorial Day in my area. When the soil is warm and frost is but a memory. Between snow-go and squash planting time, we have seven or eight weeks during which the ground is bare and doing little or nothing, except maybe sprouting some early weeds. Why not put it to better use? say I. Here’s how I do it. As soon as I see some snow-rid ground, albeit half-frozen mud, I seed it down thickly to oats and field peas (you know, the sort you use as pea soup, only not split). Then I rake or tread the seed in as conditions allow. Seed depth is not important; I merely need to hide the seed from newly arriving birds until it sprouts. As April slides into May the growth rate accelerates to form an ankle-deep carpet. A week or so before planting squash, I need to chop in the vegetation, but only where the actual squash will be planted; that’s because too much decaying matter can actually cause a nitrogen deficiency, as the decay process pulls nitrogen from the soil. Once the decomposition has commenced apace, it will of course release lots of usable nitrogen for the squash plants.

Since I mean to plant the squash in hills, I only chop 2-foot (0.6 m) circles every 6 to 8 inches (15.2–20.3 cm), leaving the oats/peas in between to continue growing; they’re not in my way yet. I generally use an Italian hoe—the poor man’s rototiller—to chop stuff in. I may or may not fertilize those circles for the squash; I typically plant it on lean land just to utilize the benefits of this method. Although the oat/pea mix will soon become a source of fertility for the squash, it may not be soon enough. I use either fully composted humanure or regular compost that is not yet thoroughly decayed (I have so much need for finished compost elsewhere, whereas squash is not so picky about the state of the compost). I don’t turn in the compost; I merely top dress each ring, using as much as I can spare.

I used to plant squash seed directly until I wearied of feeding the voles; I now start seedlings indoors in 4-inch (10.2 cm) peat pots (thinning to three plants each), at least two weeks earlier. That head start allows me to be in less of a rush to set them out: I can afford to let the chopped oat areas break down for a few days longer than I had previously. The rest of the area—oats and peas—continues to put on lush growth until the squash plants are sitting in wells of light with walls of oats/peas surrounding them.

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