Uncovering the Perks of Cover Crops

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by AdobeStock/Leonid Ikan

There’s no doubt that I’m a creature of habit, and one of my habits is to read just about everything I can get my hands on that relates to my passions, including gardening, plant-animal interactions, and grazing strategies.

One of the topics that comes up time and time again is cover crops, which can be used in the garden, in pasture improvement, in soil-building, and, of course, as forage. It’s all fascinating stuff, and yet, because I’m a creature of habit, I often don’t get around to implementing, or even experimenting with, many concepts I read about, because I can’t always find enough hours in the day.

So it goes with cover crops. Sure, I’ve tossed a little buckwheat here, and a little cereal rye there, and I’ve planted clovers and grasses beneath grazing corn that would become pasture after I strip-grazed the heifers on that corn. But I’ve never really engaged cover crops as a routine, soil-building, insect-trapping, forage-producing strategy, no matter how much I’ve “wanted” to.

This year was no different, except that I’m married to a person with a cover crop passion, coupled with a powerful drive to build soil and reap its benefits. With her passion blazing after attending an inspiring field school, Joanna was pretty clear that this was the year of a bona fide multi-species cover crop extravaganza! Well, it would be a test, anyway, and it would involve a fall-seeded mixture of various annual legumes and grasses. Soon enough, a 50-pound sack of seed arrived — when I asked how much it cost, the answer was “quite a bit.” About three weeks ago, that sack of seed disappeared as Joanna dispersed its contents over several of our large garden beds.

Some nicely timed rains later, and those beds are now teeming with plant and insect diversity. While I marvel at the potential forage value aboveground, Joanna, with the help of her microscope, reports the presence of a healthy community of bacteria, fungi, and invertebrate microbial life belowground. We’re both pretty excited to see how these beds perform next year, and to spend some cold winter nights in front of the woodstove planning how to experiment with spring and summer covers, as well as incorporating them into our pasture renovation and bee habitat to enhance future projects.

If you’ve ever been inspired by someone to step out of your set ways and try something new, I’d love to hear the story. As always, feel free to send me an email at HWill@MotherEarthNews.com, and maybe we’ll be able to print some of your stories here, to the benefit of all.

See you in February,