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 Food In The Forest

One of the iconic paradigms of permaculture is a food forest. The idea is as follows:

“By understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human intervention, we can learn from Nature, copy the systems and patterns to model our own forests — ones filled with trees and plants that produce food we can eat.”

Angelo Eliades, Permaculture News Magazine

Food forests are beautiful in concept and application, and many indigenous cultures throughout the centuries have practiced agroforestry techniques along these lines. If you’re starting with a lawn or a farm field, then planting a food forest is kind of like planting turbo-charged garden, and it’s likely to be a major ecological, environmental, and aesthetic improvement over what was there before. But what if your lot is already wooded? Should you cut down existing trees to replace them with food-bearing trees?

I encountered this very dilemma on the land I steward. Strawberry Moon Farm is about 10 acres in size; minuscule compared to all of the neighboring farms. Of this, we have 2.4 acres of frequently flooded wetland, 3.6 acres of woods, and 4.4 acres of former corn fields and lawn. By mainstream thinking, that equates to 4.4 acres of “good farm land”. At first, I believed this misconception about good and bad land, and I was not sure if the 4.4 classically-appreciable acres would allow enough room for all the plantings I had in mind for this farm. I briefly considered cutting down some trees in the woods to make space for more “food trees”. Ultimately, the idea of cutting down lots of trees made me feel a little sick. But don’t we need food? Aren’t there hungry and undernourished people in our community? Isn’t it important to reduce food miles? And, if I plant new trees, does that make up for cutting down existing trees? The old ones? The native ones? Is a food forest better than a wild forest?

Luckily, I was not forced to make that impossibly heart-wrenching choice. And if you are facing a similar tough decision, relax. There is really good news here. The forest is already made of food.

If you have a wood lot on your property, go to your library and borrow a nice field guide for tree identification in your locale. Take it with you as you walk through your woods. Identify as many trees as you can, and write down their names. Later, employ high technology to its highest purpose, and google those trees. Learn all you can learn about them. Search for them in the Plants For A Future database. Search for them in ethnobotanical databases, such as BRIT. Find out as much as you can about the ways indigenous people use them for food, medicine, tools, and fiber. Learn any modern uses. Learn which mushroom species can be cultivated on the fallen branches from each tree. Learn about its importance to wildlife and pollinators, about its lifecycle, and about its impact on soil, water, and air quality. Learn about its native range, and find out if it is endangered. Chances are, most of the trees in your woods have at least one wondrous purpose, and your only real task is to learn how to responsibly partake of their gifts.

In my case, the woods provide walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, beech nuts, sweet syrups, cherries, grapes, mulberries, fresh greens of many types, edible flowers and seeds, blackberries, raspberries, herbs, and spices. And I am convinced that is not all, that there is much more value in my woods that I have not yet learned to see. We are not talking about a token yield of a few snacks here, but rather about buckets and buckets of harvest every year, for which we need do no work other than learn what it is and be present to gather it and give thanks. In the future, when I have the time available, there is ample opportunity for me to engage with these woods in a more meaningful way. If I remove some of the invasive undergrowth, I could cultivate many more food and medicine herbs, brambles, and shrubs under the shade of the old canopy. I could inoculate fallen logs with edible mushroom spawn, and harvest the fruiting bodies. I could plant young saplings to replace dead and dying trunks, and eventually harvest their bounty. I could reintroduce numerous species of endangered or threatened native plants. I am only beginning to scratch the surface of all that is possible in these woods.

The key skills in farming the woods are to observe with attention and intention, to learn to recognize gifts of great worth, and to learn how to harvest responsibly and sustainably. One cannot approach a woodland with arrogance and a closed mind and expect to leave with an abundant harvest. Unfortunately, that’s what the first colonists of my county did, and it resulted in most of our old growth forests being cleared, most of our wetlands being drained, and a labor-intensive, resource-intensive monoculture imposed over the ashes of a once great land.

“Tall trees covered the whole county with their wide-spreading branches, depending to the ground, and the shrubbery below arose and united with the branches of the trees…In the open space, in the valleys, grew either prickly ash or nettles, both equally armed with sharp, fiery prickles…Where spice-wood did not grow to thickly, male fern formed a solid mass three feet in depth, covering logs and pit falls so completely” …

“During a dry time, two or three men might, by merely sowing and deadening over with fire, burn up the whole superincumbent covering over eight or ten acres in a single day… till the whole county, in an incredibly short time, was brought into cultivation.”

-Judge Franklin Harden, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County” (1881)

Had Judge Harden (one of the first colonists of my county) and his people made a priority to learn from the indigenous people who were already engaged in a longstanding fruitful and reciprocal relationship with this land, perhaps we would all be living a more abundant life today. If he had studied more deeply, he might have learned that prickly ash, nettles, spice-wood (spicebush), some species of ferns, and many species of tall trees already produce premium quality food, and some of those plants have useful medicinal applications as well. Furthermore, there were likely many other magnificent species that he overlooked in his haste to slash and burn.

“There were wild plums, strawberries, grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and many varieties of berries. The acorn of the bur oak, Indian potatoes, and tubers of the water chinkapin, arrowleaf, and Jerusalem artichoke supplied starch. Common milkweed, flowers of the mulberry, early shoots of skunk cabbage, sour dock, wild onion, and a number of other plants were prized as greens. Teas were made from spikenard, spicebush, sassafras, and several other plants.”

-Stewart Rafert, an account of the wild local bounty known and enjoyed by one of Indiana’s largest indigenous tribes, the Miami. From “The Miami Indians of Indiana, A Persistent People” (1999).

I wish I could have seen my state covered by that old and abundant forest made of food. Past harms cannot be undone, but we can choose to learn from the mistakes of our past and to make a better decision today. I’m grateful for the wild spaces that remain, and I will do what is in my power to do to preserve and restore them. The woods on my land are not old, but they are becoming old. A token few trees may have lived a century or longer, but most are 50 years or younger. It is likely that someone of my grandparents’ generation planted the majority of these trees. That planting was a great gift. I hope someday, when a future generation inherits the new native tree forest that I have planted, they can recognize the inherent worth of it, and steward it on into the future. And as I begin to plant the 4.4 “good” acres on this farm, I find my plans evolving towards more and more native food-bearing trees and plants over the more common (mostly Eurasian) orchard crops. The native plants offer a brilliant package of joy and nourishment for the entire ecosystem. Perhaps one day, the old forest of abundance will return to these ten little acres in Johnson County.

For further reading:

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Sage Advice

I’m growing two varieties of garden sage (Salvia officinalis) in the herb spiral this year. One plant was simply labeled “Sage”, and the other was labeled “Berggarten Sage”. Early in the summer, it seemed like Berggarten Sage was extra productive, but regular Sage has totally caught up and now both are producing about the same amount. The Berggarten variety has a slightly milder flavor, and huge round leaves. The large size of the Berggarten leaves is an asset when making fried sage leaves, such as are used in one of my favorite lasagna recipes. In most other recipes, the sage leaves are chopped and/or dried, and there is only a slight flavor difference between the two varieties. Both varieties are labeled as hardy perennials in zones 5-9. I planted them in zone 6, so I hope to enjoy both of these plants for years to come!

Most people don’t think of sage when they go to brew a cup of tea, but sage makes a very nice herbal infusion. Brew as you would mint tea. À votre santé!

Pro tip: In past years, I’ve tried growing sage in the ground with no success. Sage enjoys dry climates and well drained soil. It does not thrive if the soil is soggy all spring long, such as is common here in central Indiana. If thriving sage plants have eluded you in the past, consider growing it in a raised bed, or near the top of an herb spiral. A little elevation has made all the difference for me!

Both plants were purchased from Companion Plants nursery in Ohio in May 2020.

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The Winner Among The Weeds

When I first moved here five years ago, I was so excited to have a vegetable garden again. I had been pining for it for years, and even though I really didn’t have time for it, I tilled up a large plot of land the very first spring and planted one. I kinda-sorta kept up with it that first year, even though maintaining ten acres of land was proving to be much harder than I first expected, and my time was limited. But over the next few years, other commitments usurped what little free time I once had, and that garden – which I now call “the old garden” – grew wild. The situation has been really hard to clean up, and I don’t recommend doing this yourself. Without help from my chickens, it might take years to reclaim this as a productive vegetable garden. But despite the mess, three of my original perennials survive to this day. Only one, however, is thriving : sunchokes.

Sunchokes (aka sunroots or Jerusalem artichokes) are a delicious and healthy root vegetable that is native to most of the United States and part of Canada. They are a close relative of the sunflower, which is also native here. They are very hard to get rid of once you have planted them, and they spread. But since they’re a particularly delicious and satisfying food crop, and because they’re native here, I’m ok with that. Even without my help, this plant has out-competed most of the weeds and gradually expanded its territory each year. Although I’ve been working to reclaim the rest of the old garden this year, I’m going to leave the part where sunchokes grow alone until fall. It will be worth the wait to enjoy their delicious harvest.

P.S. The other two surviving perennials are garlic and lemon balm. Both were considerably less bountiful than the sunchokes, so I dug those up and relocated them.

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The Flow of Permaculture

When people find out I’m starting a farm, the first question they usually ask is, “What are you going to grow?”  After I’ve told them about the extensive gardens, orchards, vineyards, woodland crops, wetland crops, animals, and honey bees in the plans, most people respond with a comment along the lines of, “that sounds like a lot of work”.  And yes, farming is undeniably a lot of work.  But raising a wide variety of crops can actually make the small farm more efficient.  By strategically designing a self-sustaining ecosystem, the farmer harvests more, wastes less, and diversifies her workload rather than increasing it.  Take a look at the flow chart below, showing the complex relationships between the various crops and animals planned for Strawberry Moon.

Permaculture Farming Flow Chart
In the system above, the farmer does a wide variety of jobs, but each task sets multiple other tasks in motion.  I personally find it more enjoyable to spend small amounts of time doing many different things than to spend a large amount of time doing one thing.  Additionally, many of the least desirable jobs can be delegated.  For example, look at how the chickens fit into the farm ecosystem.  The farmer does spend time and money buying food for the chickens, caring for them, and building a safe shelter for them.  However, in return, the chickens will prepare new garden beds, provide fertilizer for the crops, control insect pests, clean up and “compost” damaged fruits and vegetables, and as if that wasn’t enough, they also reward the farmer with eggs and feathers!  And if you are someone who eats chicken meat, then that can be another benefit as well.  Even if the chickens did not provide eggs, they would still be valued partners on the farm.  Now, take a look at the chart below.  This shows a less complex system with fewer elements, but notice the additional tasks that now fall to the farmer.

Non-Permaculture Farming Flow Chart In the first chart, the farmer was responsible for 13 tasks, but some of them were one-time jobs such as building shelters for the animals.  In the second chart, the farmer is responsible for 13 very significant, ongoing tasks.  Yet, the farmer no longer receives wool, milk, honey, wax, eggs, or feathers.  The farmer is not purchasing chicken feed, however the farmer is now purchasing fertilizer and pesticides.  The farmer is not responsible for caring for the sheep, but she must now spend hours per week mowing grass.  By omitting the farm animals, the farmer must do the animals’ work*.

This method of designing an interdependent, self-sustaining farm ecosystem is called permaculture.  The concepts of permaculture are based in nature and in traditional family homesteads.  If your great-grandparents farmed, they may have used some of these techniques.  Permaculture farming is less common in modern times, perhaps because modern farming is usually done on a very large scale in which machines are necessary to keep up with the work.  It would be very expensive to maintain factory grade equipment for so many different crops and animals.  However, on a small ten acre farm such as Strawberry Moon, where we do our work with hand tools anyway, this is a compelling farming system to consider.  In addition to optimizing the rewards for the farmer’s labor and purchases, this farming style is incredibly earth-friendly and sustainable.  How would you rather spend your Saturday afternoon: watching some fluffy little sheep chow down on your orchard grass while you refill their water trough, or breathing in diesel fumes from your noisy lawn mower?  I definitely know a few people who would prefer the mower, but for me and my farm, I choose the sheep!

* Please keep in mind, farm animals are living beings.  It is a great responsibility to enter into a partnership with an animal, so first please be sure you can accommodate their needs appropriately.

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