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Is it too late to cover crop?

 
Terry Bytes
Posts: 10
Location: NE Iowa
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I've inherited an acre to grow with, and the previous users did not put down a cover crop before winter.
We just had a great week in our 4B hardiness zone, and the snow has melted, leaving a bare, muddy acre.

Is it too late to put down a cover crop?
Would anything get started in time? Any recommendation for what to grow?
My normal purpose for cover cropping would be for nitrogen fixing (too late now?) , compete against weeds, and chop & drop as mulch. We do not plan on tilling.

Some of the choices I read (peas & some clovers) people complain it competes against what they're growing.
I assume this is why you want a winter kill from a fall cover crop...

Should I just buy a lot of straw? And aim for a better-timed fall cover crop?
Thanks.
 
S Bengi
Posts: 1355
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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With only a 120 frost free days/growing season. Most likely whatever you plant now will not germinate until mid June.
I would instead wait and sow the cover crop seeds say mid august, then harvest your main crop late September. Then letting your cover crop grow thru the remains/stalk of your main crop.

I have zero experience with zone 4 so take everything I saw with a grain of salt.
 
John Polk
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Here is a link to one of the most complete books ever written about cover crops:
http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition

At that link, you have the option of downloading a (free) PDF, reading the online version, or ordering the hard copy.
The online version is quite handy, as it is full of hotlinks, so you can easily jump back and forth between tables and descriptions, etc.

 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau, Terry, to answer your first question, it is never to late to plant a cover crop. That said, I would not think of monoculture cover crops, I would get a cover crop mix from your local farm supply/feed store and get it spread asap. I grow field peas, clovers, oats, hairy vetch as a normal ground covering cover crop. this blend is nitrogen fixing and humus growing, good things happen to the soil with it here in zone 7B/8A, they should work well in your 4B area too.

The way you wrote your questions it doesn't sound like you plan on putting in crops this year? if you do it will still work out to plant the clovers, just use the low growing white clovers. In the fall you can plant all the others.

Straw is good as a mulch, but it isn't going to do a lot for your soil in the short term. It would also need to be tilled into the soil to get immediate benefits from it, and you have stated you want to do No-Till.

The book John mentioned is a great reference to have on hand. I use the online version but also have a .pdf copy on my memory stick, along with lots of other reference materials.
 
Terry Bytes
Posts: 10
Location: NE Iowa
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Thanks for all the replies! Before the replies, I had found a regional catalog I must have brought home with me from this years MOSES Organic Conference (High Mowing Seeds). They had a nice, handy chart in there about cover crops & qualities. Buckwheat seemed to be one of the few that even mentioned Spring planting, so I went with a 50 pound bucket, since it matched my most important qualities.

John, thank you for the link to the book & their free online PDF. It was extremely useful, and its expanded description about Buckwheat made me confident that I made the right choice. This little guy is is perfect for what I hope to squeeze in this spring.

BUCKWHEAT: Quick cover. Few cover crops establish as rapidly and as easily as buckwheat. Its rounded pyramid-shaped seeds germinate in just three to five days. Leaves up to 3 inches wide can develop within two weeks to create a relatively dense,soil shading canopy. Buckwheat typically produces only 2 to 3 tons of dry matter per acre,but it does so quickly--in just six to eight weeks

Buckwheat residue also decomposes quickly, releasing nutrients to the next crop. Weed suppressor. Buckwheat’s strong weedsuppressing ability makes it ideal for smothering.

Fagopyrum esculentum
Type: summer or cool-season annual broadleaf grain
Roles: quick soil cover, weed suppressor, nectar for pollinators and beneficial insects, topsoil loosener, rejuvenator for low-fertility soils
Mix with: sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, sunn hemp

This description is great. We have an unheated hoop house to start our seeds in, and by the time we're ready to transplant, the buckwheat should be high enough to chop & drop with a sythe.

Bryant, I agree that in hind sight, I probably should have thought about a mix, and not monocrop. However, this is not a tradition I plan on repeating. Just something for now. By this fall, I'll study a plan for a proper crop & winter kill strategy. We did check our few meager local shops for seed mixes. Unfortunately, I was ill-equiped to know all the stats on the wide variety their percentage break-downs contained. They were extremely heavy on grasses and clovers, and some of the clovers were of the variety I had read were a bit TOO persistant. I couldn't help but feel that these were for large scale erosion control. Not only that, but their most expensive bag was a couple hundred dollars.
 
John Polk
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Buckwheat is such a fast grower, that many people use it as a smother crop. It is so quick that it blocks out the sunlight, thereby depriving the weeds of the life giving sunlight. I have heard of people getting 4-5 mowings out of it in a season. One guy says "30 days from sow to mow."

One caveat: Buckwheat has a very shallow & delicate root structure. If you plant it by itself on a slope, it can actually cause erosion. On a steep slope, it should be mixed with covers with more substantial root systems.

 
Matu Collins
Posts: 1969
Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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best of luck, Terry, do take photos and show us how things go this season!
 
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The stocking stuffer game for all your Permaculture companions
http://www.FoodForestCardGame.com
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