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Warm Season cover crop for Gulf Coast

 
John Lusk
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I live in South Louisiana, on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain across from New Orleans. Our soils are horrible, infertile, highly acidic ultisols. On top of that, the lots in my neighborhood were poorly graded so that the front yard drains pretty well into the ditches that run parallel to the street, but water gets trapped in the backyard and makes everything soggy, especially in winter. Last spring I dug an underground trench and put in drain piping from the lowest spot in the backyard to the ditch out front, and that has done a great job of at least getting rid of all that surface water that used to sit in the backyard for days after a rain. However I still have a lot of very soggy areas.

I have converted about half of the backyard into one huge bed where I grow roses, perennials, annuals, as well as chard, kale, tomatoes, etc. I have done a lot of work making compost, mulching with electric company tree trimmings and fall leaves, and bringing in lots of composted horse manure. The soil is markedly improved. In some particular spots where I've really added a lot of cover mulch, I have tons of worms. But yet there is still a lot of room for improvement. There is still a lot of the ground that isn't planted yet, and I have a hard time keeping the soil covered at all times. So my thought was that I would like to plant a cover crop this spring/summer in the still bare areas to continue to build the soil and to hopefully continue to improve the water infiltration to help with the soggy issue.

I watched the Gabe Brown video someone posted and was amazed by his claim that his land can hold more water than the local reservoir. That is what I need in my 65+ inch rainfall area! Gabe also touted the importance of planting a mix of different species of cover crops, not just one type, for maximum benefit.

To that end, can someone please recommend a mix different kinds of warm season cover crop seeds that I can plant this spring in my zone 9 (hot/humid) area? Where does one obtain such seeds? Online?

I don't have much experience with cover crops, except once years ago when I was building a new flower bed, I remember I dug the bed in winter and then planted a cover crop of red clover that I plowed under before it set seed and then planted with shrubs and perennials in spring. Thinking back now, I remember the plants in that bed grew like crazy, and the soil was like crumbly black chocolate cake. I want to repeat that success-- So do you just chop down the plants and let them rot in place before they go to seed? I have also ordered a couple of the Bocking type Comfrey plants as I've heard they are great soil builders. I've also heard similar claims about daikon, but not sure if they grow in our heat.

Any opinions or advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks
 
Jack Edmondson
Posts: 233
Location: Central Texas zone 8a, 800 chill hours 28 blessed inches of rain
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John,

A couple of recommendations. First get a tractor with a subsoil or ripper into the area that you have not improved. One does not plow the surface, but opens deep fissures to combat compaction and gain aeration. It will also allow some water channelling. If you have the same Gulf Prairie Clay Gumbo soil as the rest of us the rain sits on the surface and percolates slowly or not at all. The sub soiled helps. Make sure you "call before you dig" and tell them what you are doing. In a development that could be a disaster.

Next is 'green manure' crops for the barren ground. Alfalfa has a great root system and is a thirsty drinker. Turn some of that water into plant fiber. The root channels will further open up the soil for drainage. Alfalfa seed is available online, at the local feed store, or farm and ranch supply house. Pinto Peanut is a good legume that will add nitrogen to the soil and keep the ground covered, an important step to soil health. Clover is another or alternate cover crop, also a legume. Once a crop is established in later seasons one can add as many varieties of grass as will grow. Diversity is good. Vetch, bermuda, fescues, seed them all and let them find a balance. A strategically placed 'heavy drinker' or two might also help dry up the excess water. A willow has a root system that breaks up soil and will absorb a lot of moisture.

As far as the area you have been working, keep doing what you are doing. Some of the crops above will help, if they don't compete with what you are raising. Just keep the soil covered and lots of organic matter layer on top. A plant called comfrey is popular to 'chop and drop' onto the soil as a green mulch. There are places that sell cuttings on the internet. Do some homework. Some varieties are 'invasive' and hard to control from seed. Others have sterile seed and propagate from cuttings.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywhHsjp6CxE sub soiler

http://www.coescomfrey.com/comfrey.html
 
John Lusk
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Jack, thanks for the response.

Unfortunately, this is just a small suburban yard--no way to get a tractor in the backyard. That does sound like a good idea though. Fortunately, the drain system I put in last spring does help to get rid of a lot of that surface water that would just sit there for days sometimes. Trouble is, we will have several inches of rain in a day, such as we had in January, and then a week of sunny days, but there are still soggy spots. The sun is just not 'strong' enough this time of the year to dry out the dirt. But it really doesn't make sense to me - the ground in the front yard, not even 100ft away drains so much better--even in the relatively low spots there is no sogginess. It's almost like there is an underground spring in my backyard. I do have a well in the backyard and sometimes I wonder if it is leaking, but I don't notice pressure loss when all the faucets are turned off inside so I'm not sure. It really is frustrating all the hours I spend working on that yard and it still doesn't look that great.

I'm not really sure if I have the true gumbo clay. According to a soil test I actually have a silty loam soil. I do have some of that nasty clay, but it is sort of in veins within the soil, it's not everywhere. However, the soil is still on the fine side, so that coupled with the natural lack of organic matter (think i was around 1.7%) and all the rainfall, it can almost seem like clay. I was low in every single nutrient and I think my pH was about 4.7 if I remember correctly. I have been liming each spring and fall, applying topdressings of alfalfa meal and milorganite to the lawn as well as the beds, along with my cover mulches and compost. Very interested in remineralizing (Azomite?) but I see conflicting opinions on that.

Honestly I am more interested in ornamental horticulture than most of you, but I still grow some vegetables. I just feel like it's sort of a waste because I never can eat all that I grow. Still, all of these permaculture ideas work just as well on ornamental plants as they do for food crops.

I will look into the peanuts, clover, and alfalfa seed. I already have a couple comfrey plants ordered that should be delivered any day now. Are there any online sources anyone knows of that sells good cover crop mixes for my area? We are so hot in the summer that only specific plants can make it.
 
Jack Edmondson
Posts: 233
Location: Central Texas zone 8a, 800 chill hours 28 blessed inches of rain
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John Lusk wrote: Are there any online sources anyone knows of that sells good cover crop mixes for my area? We are so hot in the summer that only specific plants can make it.


John,

You might try here to see if any of these would grow for you:

http://www.highmowingseeds.com/organic-non-gmo-cover-crop-seeds.html

The Sorgham/Sudangrass hybrid should work in your climate.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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LSU Agriculture Center Check this site, it is State Specific and has lots of information on what will grow and how to grow it.

Since you are into ornamental plantings, I would only use farm type crops for specific needs of your soil. You will most likely find that tuberous plants are not what will work for you until you have the soil vastly improved. Since you can't eat everything you grow vegetable wise, worm composting or plain composting may be a great way to utilize the leftovers. Most likely the water issue is more because of the grading done by the builder, but with a canal so close, the ground water level will be higher than a plot further away from the canal. It may be that you have to import some soil to get the level of the land up enough to stop the water pooling effect you mention. Hugels are one method to do that, with the added benefit that the rotting wood will sponge up quite a bit. Hig resperation plants (thirsty) will also help with reducing water levels. It will most likely be a combination of plantings and methods that do the trick for your situation.
 
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