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Using cover crops on a small scale

 
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Hello Everyone!

I am curious to see the different ways people successfully integrate cover crops into their backyard carbon gardens. With the goal to minimize soil disruption and the use of herbicides, how do you get rid of the cover crops prior to planting your spring crops?

Where I live in the Northeast it's easy to plant a cover crop in the fall for a living mulch that naturally dies from the winters cold. But what about you warm weather gardeners? What tips have you learned over the years?
 
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Hi Acadia, thanks for coming on Permies.  I'm in a similar environment to you and I'm starting out with poor, clay soil.  What would you recommend as cover crops?
 
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From my previous post on Austrian Winter Pea.
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Hi Arcadia, welcome to permies. Do weeds count as a cover crop. I live in the MD state. I have 4x8 garden beds, I have been layering materials as I come by them, grass clippings, mulch, etc. I clear an area, plant, and use pulled weeds as mulch. Not very conventional, but I decided I wasn't going to fight the weeds. Sometimes, pull weeds, cover with newspaper, then mulch. It works for me.
 
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If you cover the cover crop with wood mulch it should smother it but keep the roots and biomass
 
Scott Stiller
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A lot goes into that Seth. I’ve got a two foot tall compost pile and Bermuda grass still comes through. The best thing I’ve ever heard was pioneered by Colin Seis. He would mob graze livestock in an area. Once everything had been eaten he’d sow his crop. Right before the seeds would germinate he’d graze it once again. That would stunt the cover (I believe it was grass in his case) crop so the germinating seeds got a head start. By the time he harvested his crop there was a the original grass was already a couple feet tall. Pretty darn brilliant.
 
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We incorporate cover crops into our small scale farm. This is one blog article we wrote about using Crimson Clover as a cover crop through the winter here in Southeast Texas (zone 8b) We also use a wide variety of seeds as cover crops to help with soil creation and diversity. Some of the covers we are currently using are mustard, brassica mixes, diakon radish, crimson white and red clovers, peas, cowpeas, and we broadcast a wide variety of herb and flower seeds in these mixes also.

https://setxpermaculture.com/the-benefits-of-crimson-clover/
 
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In our backyard garden, we built brand new beds this spring and filled them with topsoil and the junky clay we have in our backyard. We sowed a heavy (probably too heavy) cover crop of clover and peas in late March. We now have a dense green carpet covering the raised beds! This year we are transplanting annuals started inside into the garden beds.

As I transplant, I just dig/cut away the area and use what's been cut out as mulch around the transplant. A little extra straw or leaf litter mulch reminds me where I've put a new plant in and I can hand pick any cover crop that threatens to take over.

Easy on a small/backyard scale. =)

This fall we will plant cover crop again and probably rake or chop and drop everything come next spring.
 
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I'm in the southeast US, where summers are hot and humid with little rainfall. I've found I can leave chickweed and dandelion where I want to grow heat-loving plants, because they'll die back by the end of May. I grow oats in the winter and spring for milky oats and oatstraw tea, and it's become a type of cover crop for me, as it dies in the summer, too. The leftover straw can easily be knocked over or raked through.
 
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I've been experimenting with this for the past couple of years, so I'm delighted to see this discussion and interested in learning more. Our best results have been in our small garden-sized hay-growing areas. This was our winter cover crop of deer and turkey forage seed mix (wheat, oats, & winter peas), with some extra clover seed thrown. The vetch volunteered.



My husband scythed it for hay for the goats, and we let it re-grow until it was time to seed it for summer hay. Then we toss down the seed and chopped-and-dropped the winter re-growth.

This approach seems to be working, because this has been the healthiest cover crop we've grown so far!



 
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Very interested in this discussion too. I have always been interested in cover crops but thought where we live is too cold, as snow and hard frost comes fairly quickly, often the day the last tomato is picked, but then there is a long period in the spring where the soil sits bare waiting for last frost. I have always worried about having to weed them out if spring planted.

Do you have cover crops you recommend for spring planting?
 
Leigh Tate
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Nikki Roche wrote:I've found I can leave chickweed and dandelion where I want to grow heat-loving plants, because they'll die back by the end of May.



Nikki, that's good to know. I had tons of chickweed growing in some of our pasture areas this spring. It's a favorite forage plant for salads, so I'm always glad to see it. I tossed seed into it right before a rain, hoping the rain would knock the seed to the ground and the dying chickweed would make a good mulch. Sounds like the answer is yes!
 
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Leigh Tate wrote:

Nikki Roche wrote:I've found I can leave chickweed and dandelion where I want to grow heat-loving plants, because they'll die back by the end of May.



Nikki, that's good to know. I had tons of chickweed growing in some of our pasture areas this spring. It's a favorite forage plant for salads, so I'm always glad to see it. I tossed seed into it right before a rain, hoping the rain would knock the seed to the ground and the dying chickweed would make a good mulch. Sounds like the answer is yes!



This must be very dependent on your climate, my dandelions are only just flowering, and chickweed has just germinated, they will both grow a good 8inches to a foot high (with a bit of scrambling help from the chickweed) and grow all year the chickweed normally manages two generations. Leaving either is not an option where I want annuals
 
Leigh Tate
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Skandi Rogers wrote:This must be very dependent on your climate, my dandelions are only just flowering, and chickweed has just germinated, they will both grow a good 8inches to a foot high (with a bit of scrambling help from the chickweed) and grow all year the chickweed normally manages two generations. Leaving either is not an option where I want annuals


Interesting. My chickweed has already gone to seed and dying back. Skandi, the contrast in our locations highlights how much of a challenge permaculture (and gardening in general) truly is. Planning, planting, growing, maintaining; all are so different depending on where one lives. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
 
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So I have a super simple cover crop regimen, but I have only done it for two years and I am plenty open to suggestions.  I like to plant peas in my woodchip beds in spring and just let them die in place or get smothered by a summer crop.  Last year I planted the peas in a bed that had just finished popping up mushrooms.  I made certain the peas were inoculated and whatever left over inoculation I had left I just scattered on the bed.  That bed then grew summer squash which really came to life during the heat of summer and largely smothered out the peas.  

I left all vegetable matter on the surface until spring when I went to prepare the bed again for planting.  After clearing away residual material (which was placed into a compost pile on an unused corner of the garden), I laid down a nice, thick layer of wood chips.  Between the wood chips & wine cap mushrooms and cover crops with their roots & associated bacteria I am trying to maintain a healthy, living soil.

At any rate, I am mostly using peas as cover crops specifically to fix nitrogen.  Last year I had ample nitrogen in the soil (judging from the deep green of zucchini leaves).  With luck the soil microbes will continue to give me good, living healthy soil.  

Any recommendations to my simple process is very welcome.

Eric
 
Acadia Tucker
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These are all fantastic suggestions. It is so true that there are no "one size fits all" gardening approaches even though the basics are the same! I am definitely going to try the rake and roll technique for peas mentioned by Tim. For those asking about good spring time cover crops my go to plants are field peas, crimson clover and winter rye!  
 
Scott Stiller
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Sorry, a couple more. Winter ryegrass mixed with winter pea has been a winner for me in the past as well. I usually wait until they completely die before attempting to plant. That’s usually early June and the perfect time for pumpkin and summer squash varieties.
When planting a larger area I’ll get a bag of deer forage. The one I’m using on a new area this year is a mix of cereal grain, oats, turnips and clover. It’s a great cover as far as I’m concerned. Fast growing biomass with a nitrogen fixer! I’ll usually let a buddy hunt it until the season is over then I start making crop circles! Not really. Do any of you remember when they were trying to convince us that crop circles weren’t made by aliens? There were a couple folks with a 2x4 that had a rope tied to each end. Then they’d walk mashing down the field grasses. Years later I remembered that and decided to put it to use. I made one addition, a piece of angle iron on the bottom of the board. I don’t want to just bend the cover I want to break it so it starts rotting. Folks, this will turn sun baked clay into a useable planting area in one year! All of those roots breaking up the dirt and preparing the way for stuff I want to eat.
By the time I’m ready to plant I have a thick mulch that I simply part and stick a seedling or seed into.
BTW, we all know aliens 👽 did those.
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Scott Stiller
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I apologize. I didn’t read Leigh’s post about using deer forage until just now.
 
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Alison Bender wrote:Hi Arcadia, welcome to permies. Do weeds count as a cover crop. I live in the MD state. I have 4x8 garden beds, I have been layering materials as I come by them, grass clippings, mulch, etc. I clear an area, plant, and use pulled weeds as mulch. Not very conventional, but I decided I wasn't going to fight the weeds. Sometimes, pull weeds, cover with newspaper, then mulch. It works for me.


This is similar to what we do. It's simple and easy. We may add experimental crops or other things but our space loves volunteers so we just put them to work helping the cause!
 
Scott Stiller
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Maybe my last thought here, who knows. Years ago some bird knocked a bunch of birdseed on the ground. The soil was decent and it started to grow. Hoping to get free seed for next year I left it. At the end of it all I noticed that the root structures of these cheap seeds were remarkable!
Even though I go no till after the first year I do believe in working the soil to my advantage once. With that comes the threat of erosion. In comes the birdseed again. Throw a bunch of that on the ground where you think there will be erosion, or where there’s already been some. You’ll be amazed!
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Hi, I'm new to this forum!  I have a small backyard (SW Ohio) with two low raised beds used for edible things.  Lately I've been experimenting with cover crops: two years ago I tried winter rye and red clover.  The winter rye needed to be tamped down in late spring or it would keep growing, and the red clover lasted mostly frost. I seeded buckwheat in early summer, but birds must be eating it because not much germinated. Last winter/this spring I planted oats and crimson clover.  The oats winter killed but the clover is very happily growing now.  The rabbits adore it.  I wanted the clover flowers for tea; I may have planted the wrong variety.  Anyway, I'm seeding and transplanting in the beds now, pulling up clover to make room as needed.  I am wondering if having the clover in the veggie beds is a good idea or a really bad one? The white clover from our lawn sometimes creeps into the beds and is a pain to dig up, but the red clover doesn't seem to run.  Usually I don't have enough mulching and am pulling all manner of weeds up, but some of those weeds are tasty and good for you, like the purslane. To be carbon-friendly, I'm trying to minimize digging and pulling up things in favor of leaving plants in the ground.

Right now I have hardscape garlic up around the yard, and in the beds are onions, peas, and a variety of greens.  Summer veggies will be tomatoes, beans, carrots, and squash with herbs scattered throughout.  And a few artichokes that I started back in Jan and are cold-hardened (my experiments). I have never used wood mulch for vegetable beds: where should it be sourced?  

I like growing herbs like calendula, parsley, chamomile and basil, and let the chamomile and calendula seed in place to return the following year.  Maybe I should let the herbs become a summer cover crop, but how to cover the ground in winter if I'm to let summer herbs go to seed?

Sorry, this is a somewhat disjointed post, which might reflect my state of mind these days!
 
Scott Stiller
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Welcome to the forum Carol; happy you’re here.
Purslane is a wonderful summer cover, it cares nothing about soil type but it sounds like you have great soil anyway. I always think strawberry as a cover as well. I find it difficult to direct seed with them though. They are vigorous and tend to snuff out all but transplants. I’ve always disliked buckwheat and alfalfa. I believe they are very ph sensitive and don’t do well in the very soil I’m trying to amend. When it comes to winter cover go for the winter pea. Not only a nitrogen fixing super plant but give fresh pea sprouts all winter.
No worries about disjointed post. I view it as a stream of consciousness and never a bad thing! 😂
 
Carol Manda
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Thank you for the advice, Scott! I saw your earlier post about winter peas and could try that this winter.  How soon before frost do you sow them?  

Purslane goes into summer salads!  I also planted Hopi Red Dye amaranth about 15 years ago and we still get a lot of seedlings each year!  They are edible and pretty and easy to remove if need be. The gift that keeps on giving.

Some "rustic wild arugula" got out of hand about the same time, and we had almost solid beds of arugula for a few years.  Too bad they were very pungent - we couldn't eat all that much of it. Still have a few seedlings pop up each year, few enough to manage.

We have nearly neutral soil, with a healthy amount of clay. It's fertile but kind of hard to work with, which is one reason why we have raised beds. But the yard is small, the veggies need to be rotated, so things need to be moved outside the beds sometimes, like the garlic.  The only issue with garlic is having to dig deep to harvest the bulbs. The clay sticks to the bulb. I use a spading fork and try to slip the plant out of the ground with as little soil attached as possible.  Good thing this is "small-scale", right?

 
Scott Stiller
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Nothing wrong with small scale. I think it’s a great place to learn.
I never thought about using arugula for chop and drop but it seems like it would work pretty great. I’ve never grown Hopi amaranth but I do grow Red Garnet. The small plant is edible, otherwise just individual leaves as it gets larger. Truth is, I never eat it; I just think it looks cool!
I have mustard greens and some light-grit sandpaper tasting Chinese cabbage that run wild here. Since I don’t like unflavored sandpaper I just let it go to seed and chop it. I rarely drop it in place though. There’s usually something that could use a little protective mulch so I just leave it there.
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This past fall was my first time with a cover crop. Please help me plan a year's worth succession of cover crops. Right now I have a riot of fall sown crop finally flowering. I hope these will produce seed for the coming fall.

The current crop consists of hairy vetch, crimson clover, winter peas,  winter rye, and a smattering of kale. As I can get winter rye locally, I'm thinking after the formation of peas to try and roll up the mess and thresh on a tarp... I have a separate area where the biomass will be used. Then seed the area to summer cover crops. We do have 7 months of growing season here.

I have lots of corn, cowpeas, old amaranth seed that I hope will sprout, and buckwheat. Would these work together for a cover crop to chop once, maybe regrowing to mature before September? That is when I must sow a new crop of brassica if I want to harvest any over the winter.

Any other ideas?

 
Scott Stiller
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I’ve read your post several times Jolynn. I was hoping someone else would throw some help your way because, well I’m at a bit of a loss. Sounds like you have it covered! There is only a couple thoughts that come to mind as far as summer cover. Sorghum grows tall and would add height. With the mix you already have I’m not sure alfalfa would stand a chance. Sudan grass can handle areas that most others cannot. My only other thought is the varieties of cowpeas you grow. I stuck with the regular one everyone else grows here. The stores have it listed as “cowpeas.”  No specific variety. I bought a pack of Coat And Jacket peas years ago and have never changed. The amount of biomass they produce per plant is incredible.
 
Scott Stiller
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I left some winter pea to get some seed. I will probably end up eating them like normal and buying more seed in the fall. They sure are an attractive plant too.
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Scott Stiller
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More peas.
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Scott Stiller
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More peas
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Eric Hanson
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Hello,

So I am slow getting my garden beds planted this spring, but I just got done planting sweet potatoes.  Before doing so I had to remove a bunch of weeds that self-started in my woodchips.  One of them, I don’t know it’s name, grew in a thick, flat mat about 24” in diameter.  When I pulled it out, the center root easily pulled from the chips and the mat rolled right up, and underneath there were NO weeds at all.  This might be the most helpful weed I have ever had.

Next year I would like to try the same effect by planting Austrian winter peas.  Judging from pictures, the central root and mat looks very similar to the weed I pulled.  I would hope Austrian winter peas would do double duty, fixing nitrogen while shading out weeds.

We will see how things work out,

Eric
 
Scott Stiller
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Hello Eric! I think you’re on the right path. I want to pass along a word of caution with the winter pea. As you’ve seen they easily role up and are portable. What you didn’t see is how long they take to break down. In the past I have failed trying a Fukuoka style mulch over new seed without extra steps. I have succeeded in putting in new seed and stomping down the spent pea plants over the seed using a thin layer of the pea vines. I think winter rye is way easier but it lacks the initial nitrogen input the way peas do. I have even mowed down the peas, planted seed and sprinkled the bagged collection over the new seeds. That’s way more consistent but not as fun and stomping them down with your boots! Let me know what you try and how it works out!
 
Eric Hanson
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Scott,

I might try using the winter peas as my weed smothering plant, then come spring roll them up and move them to a compost pile.  Thanks for the info.

Eric
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