A cover crop is simply a dense planting of quick-growing plants that protect the soil and can provide many nutrients to the soil. The most common cover crops are grasses/grains such as Winter Rye. The other favorites are legumes such as clover, vetch, and peas that fix nitrogen in the soil. When the green cover crop plants are tilled into the soil it is called a “Green Manure” crop. These terms are used alternately. You can plant cover crops; during the growing season to keep weeds at bay, in the fall to overwinter adding nutrients and protecting the soil, or in the spring for areas where you will be planting later crops.
Why plant cover crops?
They hold the soil in place. Providing protection from wind and water erosion. The dense planting provides weed suppression. Winter Rye actually has allelopathic properties that inhibit other plant growth. Cover crops enrich the soil by nitrogen fixation from legume plant species and add organic material for helping the soil structure and providing food for beneficial microbes and worms. Cover crops help to reduce garden insect pests by attracting beneficial insects and bees and bumblebees are attracted to the early blooms of some of the species.
Protecting the soil is very important. Planting a cover crop is like a living mulch. The roots hold the soil in place and penetrate deeply into the earth, bringing moisture, nutrients, and airway down into the depths. The leaves shade the top of the soil keeping the top from desiccation from wind and sun, and allowing the microbes and earthworms to continue to enrich the soil. Allowing annual cover crop species to just die in place and cover the soil aids in this process and during the winter helps to hold the snow on the soil. It is important to mulch to cover the soil even if you are not using a cover crop. Just use leaves, newspaper, or cardboard covered with burlap or netting to hold it down. The worms love decaying leaves!
Cover crops help to combat weeds firstly by sheer numbers. Cover crops need to be planted thickly. Weeds love bare soil! Planting a cover crop in the fall to till under in the spring is a good way to get ahead of the spring weeds. Try to get a fall-planted cover crop for spring tilling in at least 1 month before killing frosts in the fall. Use a spring-planted cover crop to combat weeds in areas between rows of crops or in orchards. Cover crops are effective whether you till or not. They can just be mowed off and in cold winter areas, most annual cover crops die on their own and are a good mulch in place even when dead.
Clovers and legumes enrich the soil by taking up atmospheric nitrogen in nodules in their roots. They are able to achieve this because they are a host to a bacterium, Rhizobium. The relationship between these plants and Rhizobium is symbiotic, meaning they are mutual beneficiaries. The bacteria are fed by the plant and the plant is fed by the bacteria. Plants cannot use nitrogen the way it exists in the atmosphere. Rhizobium converts atmospheric nitrogen into a useful form for plants and animals to utilize. Rhizobium takes up residence in the plant’s root system and forms nodules. Clover and other legumes are susceptible to this type of bacterial “infection” and that is why these plants are great fertilizing plants.!
Want to know more?
Women Farming Show
By Sandy Swegel
OMG, I found the best show to binge watch! No not a zillion episodes of an old sitcom from my youth. FarmHer is an internet-based show about women farming! There are beautiful landscapes of Midwestern farms and silly scenes of baby goats climbing all over the farmher. Farmhers with good topsoil ground into the creases and wrinkles in their hands. Young urban farmhers in crowded cities. This show is a delight and inspiration to anyone who has dreamed about farming or just growing a few vegetables in their yard.
Women have always been hard-working farmers. No one female or male, old or young, lives on a farm without working…there’s just too much to be done. But women’s importance on the farm has often been hidden. In my extended family, second cousins had a dairy farm in Wisconsin. The family joke was that the husband spent all day sitting in the air-conditioned tractor with stereo while the wife grew all the family food, raised the chickens and the children, did all the preserving and the bookkeeping.
FarmHer is a nonprofit online community devoted to highlighting women in agriculture and helping them connect to each other and to their communities. FarmHer especially does this with beautiful photos and video episodes and a blog. You’ll love watching the dynamos who are growing your food.
New episodes come out Friday evenings at 8:30 C on RFD-TV. https://www.farmher-episodes.com
Certified Organic Seeds
by Sandy Swegel
One of the more intrigue new seeds we are carrying is Creeping Thyme. We all love the romantic look of a stone path with thyme filling in the crevices between the stone. Thyme lawns have also become popular as a low-water way to have a patch of green. You can’t play soccer on your thyme lawn, but you can walk across it. The best part is that in most gardens, the thyme grows so thickly that only a few weeds pop through.
It can be quite a challenge to start a thyme lawn or patio though. The plants you purchase generally are in large pots and it’s not easy to shake off the dirt and try to smoosh the plant between the pavers. It’s also pretty expensive to cover a long walkway.
You can definitely try direct seeding and sprinkling the thyme seeds in the areas you want the groundcover to grow. This works well in England or in coastal areas. This hasn’t worked well for me because Colorado is arid and it takes daily watering to get the seeds to germinate. Naturally then, lots of weed seeds germinate before the thyme comes up. There is an easy solution for people who like to grow from seed. Grow your own thyme plant and thyme plugs.
Plug trays are the size of a normal planting flat but each flat has cells for 128 plants. Sometimes garden centers sell plug trays or you can find them on the internet. I got some that my garden center was throwing out….they use them to plant into the larger pots they sell. You can also use those little six packs annuals come in. Fill your plug tray with seed germinating mix and put one or two seeds into each cell. Grow under lights or outdoors if it’s warm enough. In just weeks after germinating you end up with an entire tray of perfect little well-rooted plants that easily fit into the spaces in your patio. If you’re planting a lawn, you can place the plugs on a grid 4-8 inches apart and they’ll grow to a mat this year. Each packet of thyme seeds has 600 seeds in it so you could a LOT of thyme plugs for a couple bucks!
Growing your own thyme plugs is easy. The hardest part is being sure to weed the area you are planting really well. But it’s the last time you’ll have to do such a big weeding there….once the thyme grows in, it blocks most weeds. Yippee. No weeding on your patio. Or if you’re planting a lawn…no more mowing.
How to Repurpose Fall Leaves
by Sandy Swegel
Fall leaves are Nature’s parting gift from the growing season to the gardener. Tree roots run deep and wide and have collected minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil. These are nutrients that then spent the summer high in the sky at treetop collecting sun rays and are now being placed abundantly at your feet.
If you’ve been gardening any length of time you know how valuable leaves are. They decompose beautifully in the compost bin when mixed in with the green matter. You can run them over with the mower to break them down and use them as mulch in all your garden beds. You can keep piles of them in a shady moist corner of the garden decomposing down into leaf mold which is a superior soil amendment.
The most important thing gardeners in my neighborhood do within Fall leaves is collect them. Our neighbor Barbara is the Queen of Fall Leaves and had taught us about how valuable leaves are to the gardener. She lives on a busy street and puts a big cardboard sign in front of her house every year that says “Bagged Leaves Wanted.” Pretty soon bags and bags of leaves start piling up, brought from strangers all over town who are happy to have a place to recycle their leaves. Barbara gets the first 1000 bags and about fifteen of us split the next 1000 bags of leaves.
So what do you do with 1000 bags of leaves?
Mulch the garden beds. Some of the leaves have already been chopped by blower vacs. These leaves easily go on perennial beds.
Mulch the garden paths. Big dried leaves that are slow to break down like oak leaves or pine needles go on the paths to keep the weeds down.
Put a layer over the vegetable garden. If you don’t till in the spring, a thick layer of leaves will block light and suppress weeds and keep in moisture. But wait, you say, the wind will blow the leaves away. That’s when you put the bagged leaves on top of the garden. It’s a place to store extra leaves and the weight of the bags keeps the loose leaves from blowing away. Moisture collects under the bags and earthworms come to feast there.
Till the molding leaves into the soil in Spring with the cover crop.
Insulate the cold frame or greenhouse with bags of leaves stacked around.
Line the troughs you dig for your potatoes next year with rotting leaves.
Make easy Leaf Mold. Stack the bags that look like they don’t have holes somewhere (as insulation or just as storage) and put the hose in to fill the bag about ¼ way with water. This makes speedy leaf mold.
Use as free litter for chickens and bunnies. If you have farm animals, dried leaves are perfect free litter for the bottom of the coop or cage. And the manure is already pre-mixed with carbon for composting.
Feed the Goats. The most fun thing to do with the leaves (aside from jumping in piles of them) is to feed the goats. Apparently, dry leaves are yummy like potato chips to goats and they come running to eat the crunchiest ones when I’m hauling the latest bag of leaves to the backyard.
Happy goats running with floppy ears flying is a highlight of my day.
Creative Ways to Help Your Garden
by Sandy Swegel
One of the problems with gardening is that you just can’t rush Mother Nature. If you don’t get those tomato seeds planted early enough, there’s just no way to trick the plants into growing overnight. Compost is the same…you can’t just mix everything up today and use the compost tomorrow. But there are things you can scavenge that you can add directly to your garden that help your garden a lot more than those sterile-looking bags of manure or compost they sell at the store. And they’re free!
1. Leaf Mold
Better even than regular compost for improving soil texture, leaf mold is what you end up with after a pile of leaves has rotted down to a dark earthy mix with only a few leaves still recognizable. This can take one or two years depending on how wet your climate is. You can find leaf mold that’s been breaking down for months or years anywhere leaves collect: where the wind blows them behind the garage or along the shady side of the fence. Your neighbor’s yard is a good place to find it, or along stream beds or in shady woods. Dig in to get the dark damp leaf mold next to the soil and leave the dry leaves for another year. Spread the leaf mold over your garden, at the bottom of planting holes, or along the trenches for your potatoes. This is pure gold for your garden.
2. Coffee grounds
Coffee shops are often willing to give you their used coffee grounds for free. Starbucks packages them up for you in empty large coffee bags. No need to do anything special with the grounds…just sprinkle them across your soil or at the base of plants. The plants like the boost from caffeine almost as much as you do.
3. Weed Tea
When I’m weeding, I keep two buckets with me…one for the green leaves (and roots) of weeds like dandelions, thistle, dock, lambsquarters and one for the seed heads or other garden debris I’m cleaning. All those long tap roots that are so hard to dig out have been pulling up minerals and micronutrients from deep in the soil. Once my bucket of green leaves is mostly full, I fill the rest with water and leave the bucket out to “steep.” After four days or longer, (ideally until it starts to smell bad), I use this nutrient rich water to water the garden. The leaves get thrown out or into the compost. Plants that get this water turn a nice dark green.
4. Grass Clippings
If you (or your neighbor) have a lawn (and you don’t use weed killer), the grass clippings are the perfect mulch for your garden. Layer the clippings thinly on the surface of the soil near your plants. Keep adding it every week and it will keep breaking down at the soil line into compost.
Most newspapers are printed now with soy ink and safe to use in the garden. Lay three or four sheets of newspaper over the soil in your walkways or between rows and cover with mulch. The newspaper helps block weeds from coming up, and reduces evaporation. Worms LOVE the taste of newspaper and will help break it down into rich soil.