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Best soil-building cover crop for red clay?

 
Matt Miles
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Hello,

I was wondering if anyone knows a good soil-building cover crop (or mix) for red clay? I'm hopefully about to move onto some property in the piedmont of northwestern North Carolina and the soil seems to be mostly red clay hardpan. I will probably try to do huglekulturs for Zone 1, but I'd like to know what to plant elsewhere that will build up the soil in a couple years enough to get started on a food forest, while saving me from having to mow and manage cleared land.

Thanks in advance,

Matt
 
R Scott
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Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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Daikon radish, dandelion, and turnips for tillage and organic matter in the soil. Clovers, chufa, plantains, comfrey, etc. for general soil fertility, pasture, medicinals and food. Don't forget hot season varieties in the mix to maintain cover.

 
John Elliott
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In addition to RScott's list, I would add chicory. I planted some last fall and it is doing a good job this year, even with the crazy swings in precipitation we have been having.
 
Matt Miles
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Thanks to all who responded; your advice is very much appreciated! On the soil now is a layer of grass (not yet sure what kind) that's about 2 to 3 feet high. I'm thinking I should cut the grass and leave it as top mulch or work it into the soil, in preparation for planting. That would be in advance of planting whatever will grow during the winter months--I wouldn't leave the soil bare over winter.

The question now is, how to plant some of these crops? Should I go over the land with a rototiller to break up the surface a bit or just broadcast a mixture of seed onto the surface, sepp holzer-style?

Thanks!

Matt
 
R Scott
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First, chicory is a better answer than dandelion if you have neighbors!! keep the weed police happy and grow stealth food.

If you have good grass, DON'T tear up the rootbed. I would mow/brushhog it (mechanical chop and drop) short right before planting, then broadcast over the top with a seed mix, then drag it with a harrow or roller just to scratch the seeds into the soil (or grass mulch) a bit. All hopefully right before a light rain. Some broadcast, then mow--I usually get too much mulch on top of the seed that way. You could keyline rip it to speed up the decompaction, if you have access to the tools. But the radish will do the job if you have a couple seasons.

If it is bad grass, you can go big ag and chiselplow and disk it all, then broadcast or drill your total mix. Add wheat or rye or oats as the quick cover. That is a big dollar investment, depending on the acreage--and I would rather spend machinery time/money on swales and earthworks and slow manage the rest.

 
John Elliott
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Matt Miles wrote:
The question now is, how to plant some of these crops? Should I go over the land with a rototiller to break up the surface a bit or just broadcast a mixture of seed onto the surface, Sepp Holzer-style?

Thanks!

Matt


Broadcast! I had quite the compacted piece of Georgia clay when I bought my place, and my neighbor with the tractor disced one of my gardens (this was 3 years ago) and I can't say that it had a lasting effect. Oh sure, I got a nice crop out of that area the season after it was disced, but it was not perma-culture; it was a way to get sucked into doing the same thing year after year, all the while making the clay hardpan that's 12" down even harder.

Since then, I have been going the cover crop approach, with crimson clover and radishes, and dumping lots of wood chips on it. That seems to be building up the soil and I have noticed an increase in earthworms.

One thing that can help with clay soils is adding gypsum to soften them up. Where to get gypsum for free? Any home construction site. The average new home fills a good sized dumpster with wood scraps, carpet scraps, carpet padding scraps, shingle scraps, cut bricks, and --most important-- drywall scraps. See if a contractor will let you cart off all his drywall scraps and then just broadcast them over your problem clay. After a few months of sitting out in the rain, the paper covering of the drywall rots away and you are left with lots of crumbly flat pieces of gypsum. You can leave them there to soak in after each rain, of if you want quicker results, you can till them under (just once, you don't have to make several passes like my neighbor who loves riding the tractor).
 
Matt Miles
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Thanks, John and R Scott!

What do you think about planting peanuts as a warm season soil builder? I've grown them easily in Maryland for a couple years, and they are good nitrogen fixers and I would imagine soil-breakers, as well. I know they grow well in most of the south, so I imagine that means red clay?

I will certainly take your advice w/r to the rest of the crops and how to plant them.

Matt
 
R Scott
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I haven't grown peanuts, so I can't say.

You do have to worry about wild animals tearing up the ground to get to rootcrops so be careful if you are in feral hog country.
 
John Elliott
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R Scott wrote:I haven't grown peanuts, so I can't say.

You do have to worry about wild animals tearing up the ground to get to rootcrops so be careful if you are in feral hog country.


I'm not so worried about the feral hogs as I am about the feral wabbits! Damn wabbits won't leave the peanuts alone. They come by and clip the foliage and don't give them a chance to peg. At this rate, it's going to be a poor peanut harvest unless I outsmart the wascally wabbits.
 
Matt Miles
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Thanks, fellas! I appreciate the advice!

Matt
 
stephen sinnott
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The best cover crop is the grass you already have, if it was me i would graze it with cattle aiming to trample 60% or more onto the ground, all you need is some poly wire and a minimum of 1 cow, very low cost and a better soil builder than almost anything mentioned so far, carbon builds soil and nasty old dry grass is perfect, an added benefit of the constant layer of trampled grass is that you will extend your growing season, conserve moisture, get meat/milk and see an explosion in soil life, cow manure could help to support chickens too which could have a large part of their diet provided by the ever growing worm and insect population, its a win win win win situation for very little money using bovine equipment which appreciates in value.

steve.
 
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