Let’s Be Like Cover Crops: Building Community

Reader Contribution by Jonny Malks
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Crimson Clover in bloom!

Winter is hard. It’s usually hard. Frost on the ground makes it impossible to dig. To step out into an icy day quivers the shins and can freeze hope for a while. And staying in can only make that feeling worse. This year it’s going to be harder. More Americans are dying every single day from COVID-19 than the number of those who died on 9/11. This will be going on for months. People will feel isolated and lonely. They will gather inside. Cases in my home state of Virginia went up by nearly 60 percent this week alone. The virus will spread, and, even with the first doses of the vaccine on their way, it’s very possible that we’re looking at another year before the average person in our general population gets a chance. 

I know I’ve felt the tragedy of this pandemic weighing heavier than ever in recent days. I feel tired, angry, and sad. Frustrated more than anything. The fact that there has been absolutely no federal intervention has made the U.S. the COVID epicenter of the entire world. So, what am I here to talk about, here in the midst of our collective grief and anxiety? Here at the start of what will prove to be one of our country’s hardest winters? Crimson Clover and Daikon Radish. 

You read that right. Crimson Clover and Daikon Radish. These are cover crops with a purpose, a unique connection to one another and the ground in which they grow. They are friends who help your soil. They bring happiness to all the beneficial microbes that live in your land, and we could all use a dose of their simple magic right about now. 

“Okay…” you’re saying, “but what does this have to do with this depressing winter? This terrible timing? This aching in my head?” And, to that, I would reply that Crimson Clover and Daikon Radish are here for us when very few others are. They do their work over the winter. 

“And, what is their ‘work’ exactly?” I can see you doing those sarcastic air quote gestures with your fingers while peering, like an auditor, over your morning coffee. I can visualize it clearly because I’m right there with you, and it’s healthy to feel sad, to test the weight of this tragic moment in our collective history and connect it to our personal struggles. But to get lost in these feelings can be dangerous, so I’ll tell you. Crimson Clover is a winter-hardy legume that reduces erosion. As a legume, it fixes its own nitrogen and scavenges nutrients. It suppresses weeds in the fall and spring and waits out the winter with its human companions, eventually releasing its edible pink flowers as a celebration of common perseverance. Crimson clover works as a fantastic forage and pollinator mix. Plus, you can have it in your salad and give it to your partner as a centerpiece or bouquet, a “thank-you” gift for keeping company even when things get dark. 

Some beautiful, full-grown Daikon Radishes. 

“But what about those tillage radishes you were talking about?” So good of you to ask. And you’re right; Daikons are coveted winter fare due to their large taproot – which can grow down through the ground to depths of six feet more! This type of growth breaks up compacted soils and helps the radish cycle and store large amounts of nutrients that will be released when it starts to decompose. But there’s even more reasons to love these beautiful root vegetables. A healthy radish will sequester nutrients below ground while controlling erosion up above. And, perhaps most importantly for readers who aren’t as passionate about farming/gardening for themselves, these big guys taste great with some vinegar and soy sauce in a stir-fry! 

What’s best is Crimson Clover and Daikon Radish complement one another and work most efficiently when broadcast together across a field of tender earth as a cool-weather cover crop mix. They’re friends. They’re beautiful, edible, healing plants that help our microbes, our soils, ourselves, and one another. And they’ll grow with us through the winter. 

These days, every passing moment seems to have the potential to bring more devastating news. My family has recently undergone our own fair share of personal shock and grief. After getting the news that my ninety-one-year-old grandmother contracted COVID-19 in her retirement community just weeks before their doses of the vaccine were to arrive, we knew that all we could do was wait and hope for recovery. It’s so scary. There are a lot of tears as this situation develops, but all the waiting and hoping has got me thinking about cover crops. How they persevere and replenish. How they feed and heal. My grandmother grew up on a dairy farm during the Great Depression and into World War II. German POWs were lenT out to her father to help with his work. My grandmother would always let the cows out because she was far more interested in reading anything she could get her hands on than doing farm work. That’s why she became a librarian. 

I know for a fact that Crimson Clover is no stranger to Carroll County, Maryland, where she was born. I’ve seen some growing by the road when we head up there for family trips. It weathers the winter with its friend the Daikon, but it doesn’t just wait. It cycles, it grows and blooms. I know that we’ll all do the same. We just have to wait and hope, and remember to support those who can’t any longer. Stay home. Check in. Smile if you can. Let’s be cover crops – together.

Jonny Malksis a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him onFacebookand read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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