Cover Crops: When To Grow Them And How

Cover crops are all the rage in regenerative farming, and for good reason. Plants are powerful. This world contains plants that can make nitrogen out of thin air, plants with roots that can break hardpan, plants that can prevent erosion, and plants that can clean contaminated soils. Cover crops were a step on my own path in transitioning the land from corn fields to pasture to native plant food forests. Overall, my cover crop project was successful, but I made some mistakes and learned some lessons along the way. I paid out of pocket for some projects that I might have received funding assistance for, bought some tools I didn’t need, and planted some cover crops that I shouldn’t have. These are some lessons I wish I had learned before I began.

Sprinkle The Seeds On Top

The cover crop project was my first ever project as a farmer. My experiences in horticulture up to that point had all been from the perspective of a gardener. So I thought I would have to rent fancy, expensive, fuel-intensive tools to till the ground and bury the seeds 1/4″ deep as one would in the garden, but bigger. Luckily I got some great advice from my local NRCS representative before I began: surface-sowing works fine. As it turns out, in spite of traditional gardeners wisdom, tilling often does more harm than good for the soil. And when you think about it, how do weed seeds get planted? They just land on the soil and grow. So even though my soil was all crusted over and I was certain that no seed could germinate in it, I took a leap of faith and sprinkled my seeds on top. And, they grew!

P.S. I tried several kinds of broadcast seeders, and abandoned them all in favor of scattering seeds with my hands out of a bucket. The broadcast seeders wasted a lot of seed. I had a lot more control with my hands, and it really wasn’t that hard or time consuming. I was able to sow about 3 acres per day this way. Also, scattering seeds to the four winds is really enjoyable.

Seek Help

There are some governmental assistance programs that can help you pay for your cover crops, if you’re eligible. I planted my first few rounds of cover crops on my own dime, but later I received some funding assistance through NRCS in the form of an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant to help me finish. If you’re planning to do a soil conservation project in the United States, it might be worth contacting NRCS to see how they can assist you.

Fields of Clover

Learn Your Local Weeds

I wasted time hand-pulling weeds out of my cover crop my first year. This was a losing battle. But even if you’re determined to pull weeds, you only need to pull the perennial ones. Annual and biennial weeds can be easily controlled just by mowing them down before they set seed. Plant identification is a learning process though, and the weeds I see on my farm land are different from the weeds I was accustomed to seeing as a gardener. I suggest joining a local plant forum where you can share plant pictures and exchange IDs, or downloading a plant identification app to help bring you up to speed quickly. These days, I let most of the weeds do their thing and I only expend energy removing plants if they are poisonous, irritant, or extremely invasive (namely poison hemlock, poison ivy, and garlic mustard).

Scythes Work Best on an Acre or Less

I was determined to mow my sorghum-sudangrass cover crop with a scythe. This is a crop that is planted for its vigor. It has incredible roots that can break up hardpan layers in the soil, and it produces a massive amount of biomass up top, which when mowed, becomes a nice mulch for the soil. It does need to be mowed, though. I was drawn to the idea of mowing with a scythe in order to avoid the maintenance, cost, and fossil fuel use of a mower. And I had heard many rave reviews about scythes within the permaculture community. So I bought a scythe and I tried it. But not only was I unable to mow ten acres this way, I was unable to mow even two. My field had some volunteer tree saplings in it and some giant ragweed with thick rigid stalks that frequently caught the scythe blade mid-swing. And it was hard work. By the time I made it from one end of my smallest field to the other, my body was in ragged shape and it was time to start over at the beginning again. My husband saved the day by borrowing a pull-behind brush hog and finishing that mowing job himself, because a regular lawn mower can’t handle 8 foot tall vegetation, and I can’t start a pull cord engine to save my life. Luckily, none of my other cover crops were this huge, and the crimson clover that followed it needed no mowing at all. Even after all this, I still think the scythe has a place on the farm. It would be excellent at cutting smaller cover crop rotations from the garden or harvesting a small grain crop.

Consider Seasonal Rainfall Patterns

Once, as a gardener, I planted a buckwheat cover crop in the summer. It grew beautifully, fitted in nicely after some of my other crops were done producing, provided great forage for the bees in a time of dearth, and improved my soil. I sought to recreate this on the farm. But, one key factor of my earlier success was that I had irrigation in that garden, and I do not have irrigation in all my farm fields. Turns out, there isn’t enough rainfall in summer for the crop to establish itself, and my summer buckwheat cover crop didn’t thrive. All my early spring plantings did well without irrigation though, as did my late-fall-planted crimson clover.

Grasses and Weeds Are Cover Crops Too

All the cover crops I have discussed up to this point are annuals, and they add the most value when they are grown as one rotation of many on an annual crop farm or garden. Since I was transitioning my farm from annuals to perennials, I now realize that I could have skipped a few steps. My final cover crop was a perennial blend of pasture grasses and clovers. The pasture grasses need no fertilizer or irrigation, and they do a great job of keeping the soil aerated and protected from erosion, preventing nutrient loss, and addding organic matter. The clovers add nitrogen to the soil and provide food for the bees. Looking back through the lens of experience, I suspect these perennial plants would have grown just fine if I had planted them straight away and skipped all the annual cover crops. Even certain weeds can function as free cover crops! I especially value the dandelions for their taproots, the clovers for their nitrogen-fixing abilities, and the wild grasses for their erosion prevention.

If you’re interested in learning more about cover crops, check out this comprehensive resource by SARE.

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The Foundation of Our Future

Gardening has enjoyed increased popularity in recent months. Perhaps because we’re all spending more time in our homes and our yards due to shelter in place rules. Perhaps because many of us have lost our incomes due to economic shutdowns and are trying to reduce our food costs. Perhaps because it’s great therapy during stressful times. Whatever your reason for beginning a garden, welcome to the pastime. I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to succeed, which is why I’m about to share the #1 most important garden success tip I know: grow compost. Compost is the absolute lifeblood, and the foundation of a healthy organic garden. If you have some food scraps and a few spare minutes per day, you can do this. And if you do, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful rich soil that will help your garden succeed. It’s one of nature’s great miracles.

What is compost? It’s a nutrient rich soil amendment that you can make from your unwanted food scraps. Soil loves it, worms love it, and plants love it. To start, you’ll need materials from two categories: “greens” and “browns”. Greens are fresh, moist plant products that could include food scraps, grass clippings, certain manures, and weeds. Browns are dried, dead things like fallen autumn leaves, wood chips, or paper. People have done research on creating the ideal balanced compost pile and there is plenty of literature available on that topic. I don’t measure my compost very carefully though. I just shoot for roughly twice as much brown material as green. If you have too much brown material, the compost process will be very slow. If you have too much green material, the compost will smell and might get very hot. If that happens, just adjust as necessary and keep composting. It will all work out.

Once you have some materials, you’ll need a place to put them. This can be as simple as an open pile in the back yard with no structure whatsoever, or as fancy as a compost tumbler. I’ve tried a number of different composting systems, and they all produce the same compost. The difference is mainly in how tidy they look, and how much effort is required to produce the compost.

Mantis ComposTumbler Compost Tumbler

The compost tumbler pictured to the right of this paragraph (made by Mantis) is the pièce de résistance of my compost system. I watched Craigslist for years, waiting for it to be listed there at an affordable price. The hand crank design makes it very easy to turn the compost every day. By turning the compost every day, and keeping it moist, compost is finished in just a few weeks.

Wire Bins for Compost Overflow
Wire Bins holding compostable materials that don’t fit in my tumbler. They look messy, but they do the job!

Between actively managed batches of compost in the tumbler, I store compostable materials in these wire bins as overflow. If I was constantly adding new materials to the tumbler, then the materials added later in the cycle wouldn’t be finished composting at the same time as the materials added in the beginning, meaning that there would always be some whole banana peels in my compost. So I use these wire bins to store the materials in waiting. You can see from the photo that I have quite a backlog of compostables, but I plan to completely catch up now that I’m a full time farmer (aka unemployed…)! Even if I didn’t have the tumbler, I could finish these compostables just as quickly by turning them every day with a pitch fork. But, that would take more free time than I have. Or, I could turn them less often, and they would turn into compost over a longer period of time (maybe several months). Or, I could not turn them at all, and they would still become compost after a few years! Moisture is necessary to the composting process though, so try to water your compost pile during periods of drought. Once per week is enough. It should be moist like your garden soil, but not soggy.

You’ll know your compost is finished with it reduces to at least half its original size, no longer feels hot to the touch, and looks like rich black soil. It should not contain any large recognizable chunks of banana. It should smell neutral and earthy.

Ideas for “Greens” To Use In Your Compost:

  • Vegetable peels
  • Used Coffee Grounds
  • Apple cores
  • Banana Peels
  • Leftovers nobody wants to eat
  • That parsley you bought with good intentions but it got all wilty and gross in the back of your crisper
  • Moldy bread
  • Livestock manure, or manure from certain herbivorous pets (do your own research on this, not all manures are safe to add)
  • Weeds you pulled from your garden (but be sure not to include their seeds)
  • Grass clippings

Browns:

  • Unbleached Napkins
  • Unbleached Coffee Filters
  • Unbleached Paper
  • Fallen autumn leaves (preferably shredded)
  • Straw
  • Wood Chips (these will take a long time to break down, delaying your compost, but they do work)

Items Generally Recommended Not To Compost:

  • Plastic-looking items that say “compostable” on them. These are only compostable if they’re heated first. Industrial composting facilities can handle these types of items, but it’s difficult to manage at home.
  • Items that are bleached or dyed. Though I add these to my compost anyway, as long as they make up a tiny percentage of total compost.
  • Meat or dairy products. These products can make your compost smell, and possibly attract animals to your compost pile. However, I add them anyway, because I don’t care about those consequences.
  • Foods that are very salty or oily. Again, I do this anyway as long as those items constitute a tiny percentage of my total compost. If there’s too much salt in the compost it can harm plants, and oil takes a long time to fully break down. In tiny amounts, I don’t notice any problems.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.