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The Very Basics Of Cover Cropping - I guess I am missing somthing?

 
Ryan Mitchell
Posts: 38
Location: Charlotte, NC
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So I understand a good deal about cover crops, the different species, the various benefits, etc. But it is a very intellectual / theoretical understanding; Every thing I have read is from a more traditional gardening approach (till, seed, weed, harvest, rinse and repeat). All the guides I find online are about either large scale mono cropping (using seed drills) or people who cover crop, till, plant, cover crop till, plant. But I am having trouble with some of the applications and feel like I must be missing some really basic things as things don't seem to line up when I think them through. If I till each time I want to put a new cover crop down, you loose a ton of nitrogen in the process and disrupt the soil structure. But how the heck do you cover crop and do no-till?

My details:
Charlotte, NC USA
42" annual rainfall (mostly in winter, fall and spring)
hot humid summer (low 70's high 90's)
Cool winters (low 20's high 50's)
Red clay soil


So here are a situation that I find myself in, could someone help me out with the details and process?

So assuming I am starting out at a brand new 4 acre site that has sat unattended for a while, it is cleared land, meddow-lawn-ish and I need to build the organic matter and get things kicking. The goal is to have 1/2 acre as zone 1 garden, and then most of the remaining acreage be put into forest gardens.

Would I, just for the first round, till the whole thing and immediately seed cover crops? I would wait for them to do their thing, chop it and drop it, right? Then what? How do I get the next round of cover crops going without tilling? Over-seeding most likely have a really low germination rate or fail completely because of poor soil contact and depending on the time of year, if in the summer, seeds would dry out within 6 hours without constant watering. So how do I continually bring in the next round of cover crops, create the mulch and then grow the next one?

Once that is figured out, am I understanding it correctly that when I go to build my food forest, I just dig holes where I want the trees, maybe do some broad forking around it before I start dropping in the understory stuff? I can use some techniques huglekulture too when I am deploying this.


Another thing I just don't get. Preventing compaction in no till? I understand that the root structure opens stuff up and you can use things like radishes etc to open thing up even more, but it still seems like things will get very compacted. If you have a large space, how do you prevent compaction and hard panning without fancy seed drills etc?

 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Personally I wouldn't try to do it all at one time. For great information about forest garden, the PRI DVD "Establishing a Food Forest" is very helpful, but there are parts of the DVD and other geoff lawton videos on YouTube which might help explain the process:

Steps of a food forest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG_vRG66wkA

The relation of cover crops to the fruiting trees: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMQ8eSm92xQ

Kitchen garden discussion mentions compaction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npB8qltaB6g
 
Ernie DeVore
Posts: 24
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I can only speak to the compaction question buried in your subtext.

In a no till bed, so long as you're using good compost with plenty of organic material in it, the footprint of the gardener is not going to cause serious compaction. Good soil resists compaction.

Try an experiment to determine if I'm telling you the truth or if I'm an idiot.

Pick up some normal soil that has not been amended with good, organic compost. Saturate it thoroughly and then squeeze it in your hand. It will most likely clump into a ball unless you happen to live in the most fertile location on earth. Now do the same with good, organic compost. I'm not talking about the bags of compost you get at Home Depot. I'm talking about the homemade stuff.

Both soils may compact into a ball, but set them in the sun and let them dry. The unaugmented soil will dry and harden into a ball while the compost will at least attempt to return to its original composition as it dries. It resisted forming a ball under your hand and it returns to a better consistency once it dries again.

 
Joshua Finch
Posts: 64
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Ryan Mitchell,

My main permaculture experience is gardening just north of you in Winston-Salem. A lot of what follows assumes poor soil conditions, have you had your soil tested? Since it is still free, I don't see why we shouldn't utilize the service in NC.

My answer to "how do you cover crop and no-till?":

Chop and drop. You can either choose annual or perennial cover crops- we have a mixture of both. Red, white, and crimson clover have all done very well in our clay soil, as has alfalfa. Our native nitrogen fixers, Baptisia spp. Lupinus spp. Thermopsis caroliniana, among others, are too young to assess their strength so far. We've planted them in our double dug beds (as well as some sheet mulched ones) and regularly chop them down to their crowns (just about where we see new growth emerging). Now, I had just replaced this chopped material "fresh" and I didn't seem to have any issues. However, you may end up having some problems with smothering so you could set the harvested material aside to dry, then apply to the beds. They grow quickly enough to cover any ground so the removal of material shouldn't be too much of an issue (except maybe in summer when we have intermittent rain at best).

Our site is much smaller than yours- at about 3/4 of an acre, all of which is not included in our garden. For your situation, I would highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Edible Forest Gardens, both volumes, and starting from there. They talk quite a bit about assessing your site location and devising pathways. Dave Jacke divides pathways into primary, secondary, and tertiary according to use. Pathways and continual cropping (along with mulching) have helped us to avoid soil compaction in all of our beds (not just the double dug ones). Paths are essential in small and larger gardens.

Pathways can be temporary at first, so possible you could devise where you may want your primary pathways that'll give you access to good observation points on your property and seed the rest. Although you could just broadcast the whole area, we found it helpful to place our main pathways first. I see cover cropping more as a successional stage than a round- choosing a mixture of self seeding annual and perennial crops should allow you to have a hands off approach the first year or so. Our main goal of cover cropping is not only green manure, but the planting of a wide range in native flowering plants to bring in pollinators and beneficials.

The second year, or even the first if you are ambitious, I would plant nitrogen fixing shrubs (such as false indigo bush- Amorpha fruticosa and black locust Robinia pseudoacacia) and good native coppicing species (any number of birches for example). This way you will have the hard working trees to begin breaking the soil for your food forest. Not only will you have nitrogen fixing trees, but the addition of coppicing species will allow you to begin harvesting woody material for hugel beds in the garden, mulch, logs for habitat, mushrooms, etc.

We plan on cover cropping for up to five years, but probably three, depending on how the soil tests come back next year. Only then will we invest in the more desirable species like plums, pomegranates, and other more expensive fruits. Also remember that there is nothing wrong with loosening the soil before digging- as you say- just do it in moderation with a plan.

I've been working on a series of slide shows that depict our garden from November 2010 when we started until June 2012 when I left. I've managed to make six so far and they bring you to December 2011. This coming week I'll begin January 2012 and hopefully get through spring. You can find the video links here on permies at this link. The upcoming videos will have more about our cover crop since we started in in the Fall of 2011.

Hope that helps some!

(Also let me know in a PM if you are interested in any root cuttings of Russian Comfrey or maybe even some seeds as the years go on- I'll let my family know and they might be able to send you some)
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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if you till and then sow a cover crop and then till again and sow another cover crop..you have just sown 2 monocrops..

probably best if you figure out what trees you want in your food forest garden..get as many as you can, and then plant around them the POLYculture of a cover crop that will feed the roots of your tree, adding a little forest soil if it is available to the tree's hole.

remember to put in some dynamic accumulators, some nitrogen fixers and some insectary plants..as well as some others just to cover the soil, annuals are good for that for the first several years.
 
Jeffrey Hodgins
Posts: 166
Location: Yucatan Puebla Ontario BC
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I haven't had great luck with cover crops due to dry winters. The method that works for me is direct seeding of trees and other polyculture in strips and annual crops (mostly corn) in wider strips. For example last year I took a half acre with three rows of mature fruit trees and added 5 more rows. The space between rows is enough for one pass with the tractor. In a few years I will add 8 more rows leaving space enough for 3 passes with an ox in each row. After that I will change the property to 100% no till. The end result yields a wide variety of annual and perennial crops. The compaction issue is partially controlled by using paths, growth is slower on the edges of compacted paths but not a big issue there. I top dress with manure not mulch but they have the same effect of allowing bugs to live there. Some of the bugs dig deeper in to the soil for various reasons this helps loosen soil up. Another thing is a pick ax or a digging hoe like the kind they use in India, you want to avoid using this tool too much but in a partially established food forest it is necessary to break ground in order to introduce new species.

My advice would be to start a few species at a time, concentrate on filling in near trees with onions, leeks, garlic, chives, potatoes, green leaf veggies, currents, grapes etc.
 
Rick Freeman
Posts: 103
Location: NW Montana, Hardiness Zone 4b
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I am using a mix of Austrian winter peas (70%), Vetch (15%), and oats (15%), which I spread on the untilled surface -- all my hugelculture beds (about 30) and trails near the end of the spring rain season. (I would rather have planted a month earlier). Germination was great and after harvesting lots of peas to eat raw, the vetch has now overtaken the peas with the oat-grass poking through. I plan to chop-and-drop and then replant with some perennial rye for the winter. (My N is very high.) Next spring I'll interplant with perennials on the hugelculture mounds. In the guilds, where I'm planting annuals (around the existing perennial herbs/veges/flowers plus a few new ones), I'll plant a rye/fieldpea mix and chop and drop next spring without tillling. I'll seed over this surface with annuals and spread a thin layer of soil over that (1/4").
 
Jason Matthew
Posts: 66
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I'm going to be seeding GrowOrganics sod buster seed mix and soil building seed mix next month. I am working with pasture/lawn that is heavy, compacted clay. My trees and shrubs have survived drought for the last 2 years, but are not thriving the way I would like. My vegetable garden has been an abject failure for the last two years. The plants can't seem to grow out in the heavy clay. I double dug three rows last year and filled them with straw and chicken manure, then mulched over the top with leaves. I had some nice vegetables, but I didn't control the mimosa seedlings and they took over the area. I spent today cutting down all the mimosa seedlings and other assorted plants. I have laid out all the plant material in three rows and am double digging it into the soil again. I will mulch my rows, and sow my cover crops next month.

In the spring, I plan to let the cover crops keep growing around my trees, but I will chop and drop them in the vegetable garden area, then cover over the rows with landscape fabric and set up a drip system.

 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Posts: 8989
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Is there a particular reason you chose not to save any of the mimosa as support plants?

 
Rick Freeman
Posts: 103
Location: NW Montana, Hardiness Zone 4b
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Jason, I urge you to look into biochar, which works quite well with clay soils and is quite easy to make. The carbon is much more stable than humates from manures and general crop residues, and it provides several advantages in terms of microbial habitat and water retention. However, during the first year, the char absorbs N as it "cures" in the soil, so during that year some manure would be helpful (even green manures). Best luck, R.


Jason Matthew wrote:The plants can't seem to grow out in the heavy clay. I double dug three rows last year and filled them with straw and chicken manure, then mulched over the top with leaves.


 
Alex Brands
Posts: 55
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I've planted cover crops in a much smaller area than you are working with in a back yard garden. The largest area at once was probably 25'X25', so I could spread a layer of compost on top of the seeds. Not sure what I would do with a bigger area, other than plant in early spring so the weather is on your side.

Once you get the first crop established, if you wanted to plant a second one, I would broadcast the seeds, and then chop and drop. That way the old crop is the mulch.

Martin Crawford goes over larger scale establishment strategies in his book, "Creating Forest Garden".

Alex
 
Jason Matthew
Posts: 66
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Tyler,

I have 3 or 4 mature mimosa trees nearby that will drop another crops of seeds this fall. I don't expect to run out of mimosa seeds in this lifetime. I have a few small saplings still there. I had not planned for them to take over the way they did, and wanted a clean slate to try again. It was interesting to see how the trees created their own microclimate. I hope that their roots have done a good job of working over my compacted clay.

 
Tim Eastham
Posts: 52
Location: USDA Climate Zone 9, Central Florida
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I have some basic newbie questions about cover crops. I have purchased some seeds and I am wanting to cover crop where my lawn died. I basically just have sand for soil here in Central Florida. The mix is beans, vetch, and oats. The grass in the area is dead. How is the best way to seed the cover crop? Should I turn the soil to flip the dead grass? Should I toss down the seeds on top of the dead grass and put a thin layer of soil over them? Should I just toss the seeds on the bare ground? Should I used a thin mulch like dried grass clippings, hay, or straw? Will cover crop like the sand or should I mix in some organic material?

Thanks,
Tim
 
                              
Posts: 18
Location: Upper Midwest
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Ryan

Really good questions. It was interesting to see all the different ways people are experimenting with permaculture principles.

Over the years I have drifted toward more use of animals. I try to let them do the work.
Sort of artificial migrant harvestors. I am "chopping and dropping" less and letting them do the work.
I have learned to segregate my fruit trees and bushes into sections that work well for specific animals.
Goats and sheep in the areas where thick trunks prevail.
Chickens where bush fruits prevail.
Hogs in the annual garden.
The only drawback is that animals tie you down more, unless you bring them in from your neighbors.

I definately intermix for synergy; plants that attract beneficials, nitrogen setting legumes, fruit trees and vines, nuts, etc.
But I have learned it is easier if I segregate by animal appropriate groups.
Better to have patches close to each other so the insects can cross easily.
Nature does things in patches too.
Perhaps ideally, I will find a way to rotate the patches as nature does.

I am not a big fan of replanting covers. I plant perrenials and let them evolve.
Some will self replant.
The animals do the harvesting.
Dandelion, stinging nettle, Plantain, Chicory, Sow Thistle, Burdock are planted for root penetration and animal nutrition.

Honey Locust, Willow, Poplar, Mulberry, Mimosa, and Lespedeza I try to grow as bushes for forage feeding and deep root penetration.

I am breaking permaculture rules by growing hybrids and grafting.
These will never be self-sustaining.
I make up for it by growing only the most disease resistant varieties.
Definately less input to control disease.
 
James Slaughter
Posts: 94
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One word - Balls!...perhaps that would be better clarified by putting "seed" in front of it. Masanobu Fukuoka - "One Straw Revolution" - in my opinion a must read for cover crop management.

Perrennial species planted near fruit trees for chop and drop are very useful for spot mulching. Good examples are:
Alfalfa - awesome plant, deep rooted, chop and drop, animal feed, bee attracting.
Comfrey - the standard permaculture.
Opuntia - a bit of an unusual one, but the "leaves" hold great amount of water and the spines can keep critters out of your trees. Just make sure you cover them or move them occasionally to stop them from regrowing.

As to managing your system, work out when your plants are likely to flower (or set seed) and either harvest them before that if you don't want them to multiply, or allow them to set the seed, harvest the seed, and chop and drop to inhibit the next batch of non-wanted species from sprouting. Good to work out when your main growing seasons are and then just have 2 or 3 types of cover crops to fill that season (disease and outbreaks can possibly create the niche for reinvasion from non preferred species). For me personally, I prefer to concentrate on mass of winter vigorous crops that help smother out summer species, allowing my fruit trees less root competition during the harder months. Cheers.
 
Paul Cereghino
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Posts: 855
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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Words are so slippery. 'Cover crop' implies that you leave your soil uncovered. There are so many good examples above of how to use plants for soil development. I like using a scythe, and so have started to think of plantings in larger patches. Three kinds of patches I have... patches that get regularly disturbed--root crops, edible weeds, etc... patches that produce mulch--comfrey, sorrel, elderberry, etc.. and patches that get some tending through both chop and drop, as well as cut and carry import... By having larger chop places, it also helps you reduce water competition in dry summer areas, in that I come through in early summer, and do lots of chopping in big patches, reducing the leaf area that is pulling limited water from the soil. Thus a crop like mint that gets a spring harvest, then gets chopped for mulch when the soil dries down.
 
Travis Philp
gardener
Posts: 965
Location: ZONE 5a Lindsay Ontario Canada
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For clearing the ground without tilling, consider covering it up with something until the vegetation dies back, then remove the cover and plant ASAP. I'm planning on doing this next year by using old hay tarps, large sheets of blank cardboard, and scrap sheet metal. I've heard that covering soil with things that'll heat soil up (such as tarps) can kill beneficial soil-building organisms. That being said, in my limited experience with tarping, I've seen really good plant growth in my vegetables after the tarp has been removed, and it takes months for weeds to come back. Be careful with ratty tarps that are fraying and falling apart. You don't want to end up with a billion bits of plastic all over your garden area I'm sure.
 
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