Grow Cover Crops In Your Garden

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

Every garden needs regular additions of organic matter for healthy soil. Organic matter, the key to building soil structure in your garden, acts as a slow release fertilizer and is home to beneficial microbes. You could haul materials in for your compost and mulching needs, however, not only does that increase the footprint of what is required for your garden, you are in danger of acquiring Killer Compost, which is a 21st century problem. There is a class of chemicals used as herbicides in the landscape and agriculture industries that are persistent in the plants that take them up, carrying over as active herbicide, even in finished compost. I wrote about Killer Compost here in 2011 and Mother Earth News published an update about the problem here in 2013. The best way to avoid this problem is to grow your own compost and mulch materials in the form of cover crops.

Contrary to what some may think, you do not need a tiller to manage cover crops. Hand tools will suffice. What you do need is the knowledge to manage them that way. These crops can be cut with a sickle in your garden beds and left in place as mulch, as long as you have planted the appropriate cover crop for the job and cut it at the right time. Learn more about that at Homeplace Earth. For mulch-cut-in-place I use rye with a legume planted in the fall. Here in Zone 7 I cut it about the first week in May when the rye is shedding pollen. An indicator for you, besides noticing the rye plants, is that it is about the time when the local farmers are doing their first cutting of hay.

Cover Crops as Compost Material

It is possible to grow enough cover crops to use as compost materials to provide all your compost needs. The carbon (brown) will come from such crops as cornstalks, sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke stalks, and rye and wheat straw. The nitrogen (green) will be provided by legumes you grow for that purpose, such as clover, vetch, and alfalfa. Weeds and other green material you gather from your garden will be a nitrogen addition as well. You could build your compost piles as materials are available, making what I call a Wild Pile. A more balanced approach would be to add equal amounts, by volume, of green and brown material, plus some soil each time you work on your pile. Since the green material needs to be added when it is harvested, you would probably need to store the carbon materials until the green materials are available. You can see me making compost this way in my DVD, Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.

If you bring in compost and mulch materials, that is all you have. If you grow your own, you have the added benefit of the biomass from the roots that are left to decompose in the soil—no tilling required. This is a wonderful advantage! Working in harmony with Mother Nature. Although you won’t necessarily be planting cover crops now, I would like to encourage you to make them part of your garden plan for the year. Learn what you can plant when and where, and order the seeds with your spring seed order. That way you will be ready when the time comes to plant. Enjoy this new adventure in your garden!/p>

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

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