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How to plant cover crops without tilling  RSS feed

 
John Natoli
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I have some pretty heavy clay soil and I would like to plant a cover crop such as winter wheat in preparation for planting next year. The area is covered right now in a variety of grasses and other vegetation which I've yet to identify. How should I go about planting in cover crops? Should I do an initial till of the whole area first or should I cover with wood chips and plant right into that, or some other way? Thanks!
 
Jane Southall
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Location: Limestone, TN
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I have moderately clay soil.  I had grub worms so  I just pulled the grass back and threw the red winter on top.  I did seed heavily.  I planted at wrong time too.  Mulched fairly heavily with homemade straw.  Came up fairly well.  I suspect now that the weather is more appropriate, more will come up.  Planted for dogs to have wheatgrass and for a soil amendment for fruit trees, so I wasn't worried about a "crop"
 
Jarret Hynd
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Location: Sask, Canada - Zone 3b
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I'll be planting Rye in a 1/4 acre garden and White Clover in my front lawn this fall.

For the Rye, I'll move my major straw mulches to the edges of the area and then do a 6 inch tilling.

For the Clover, I might just mow the grass really short and take a rake to it to get all the dead grass out. I'm not sure whether I'll mulch it though - might experiment with methods.

Another method I did last year was to use a huge black tarp which cooked the grass after about a month. Converted that area to Hugel beds covered in alfalfa - which grows everywhere here.



 
Hans Quistorff
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Location: Longbranch, WA
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If winter wheat is grown in your area then mowing it as short as you can and mulching it with as much as you can find then tarping it  for heat and light blockage during August should give enough suppression to the grasses there so that when you plant the wheat it can get a head start. I like to let the wheat ripen for the chickens then cut the straw down for mulch under the stips of old carpet I use between rows.
 
Marco Banks
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It's tough to get that initial crop to grow when you are transitioning from a grass field to a no-till garden/field.

If you are doing this on a commercial scale, a no-till drill is the piece of equipment used by farmers.  Basically, it has a thin disk that slices through the soil and then the seed drops down into that thin slit before it closes back up.  It makes a minimal slice through the soil but doesn't turn everything over.  Within a couple of days, you can't even tell that the blade sliced through the soil.  In reality, it doesn't cut much deeper than your seed planting depth, so it may be as little as 3/8ths of a inch, or at most, 1 inch for something like corn.  For winter wheat, you'd only plant that a half inch deep or so.  So a no-till drill barely penetrates the soil but puts the seed down right where you want it in perfect rows.  Oh, and you'll need a tractor to pull it.

On a home scale, you obviously wouldn't buy a big farm implement like that.

You could mow (or better yet, graze) the existing plants down as low as possible, and then broadcast your seed over the top.  You will get the best germination if you have good soil to seed contact, so it is helpful to run a roller over it to push the seed down onto the soil surface.  Then keep it evenly moist for several weeks while your seed germinates.  I've seen where people broadcast their seed, and then they drag a harrow behind the tractor over the top of the fresh seed.  It rips at the soil surface and chews it up a bit, hopefully mixing the seed down into the soil a bit.  Again, rolling the seed flat after you've harrowed is recommended.

If you just broadcast without rolling, you'll still get a certain percentage of germination.  Seed tends to drop down and find little nooks and crannies.  They wiggle down through the surface organic matter until they can't go much further.  If you water it regularly, the seed then begins to swell up and hopefully find good purchase with the soil surface.  Roots emerge and work their way down into the soil --- again, as long as the seed stays sufficiently moist and the soil is most enough for the seeds to make purchase with it.

Once you've been mulching regularly with wood chips or any other mulch, and once that mulch has broken down a bit, then it's pretty easy to dig shallow furrows with a triangular hoe, plant your seed, and backfill the furrows.  Or what I usually do with cover crop seed, I just broadcast it over the mulch and then use a rake to roughly scratch it in.  It isn't tilling, per se, as the soil remains mostly undisturbed.  You're just pushing the mulch around, for the most part.

If you choose to seed first and then come back with mulch to cover the seed, then don't mulch too thick.  MAYBE 2 inches of chips at the most.  But don't be surprised if that really knocks our germination percentage.  Fresh chips are not a good growing medium.  Once they've decomposed a year, yes, but fresh chips are good at surpressing seeds, not germinating them.  That's why it makes such a great weed surpressing mulch.
 
Thyri Gullinvargr
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You could try seed balls. They provide the seed to soil contact and some initial fertile soil to get the plant started. I'm not an expert , but here's a few references to give you ideas.

https://permies.com/t/974/Seed-Balls-good-winter-project
https://permaculturenews.org/2014/06/18/making-seedballs-ancient-method-till-agriculture/

Short explanation:


More detailed explanation:

 
Andreas Schäfer
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Hi, interesting topic. I also would like to find a way to get things started on a larger scale without tilling. Last spring I tried seedballs, and I failed. I share it so you can hopefully learn from my mistakes and tell me how to do it better.

One problem I had, was that seeds sprouted while the seedballs were drying. Probably making them now in summer would allow them to dry quick enough to avoid that?

I made sunflower seedballs, small ones with only one seed covered in the clay-compost mix. Too small, my rooster found out quick he could crack the ball to get to the seed. I suppose I have to keep my chickens locked in when the seedballs are tossed and wait for the rain.

I can't wait for the rain in about a month, there will be plenty to grow here in Portugal in autumn and winter. One thing I did last autumn succesfully, was to toss lupine seeds around, just on the bare soil. They did very well, and I could harvest a lot of seeds.
 
Vern Life
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Location: Cascadia
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We've been doing "seed balls" as well. It's been passed down from the first nations for planting food and meadows after fires and for general seeding. As mentioned before, it didn't go well at first due to weather patterns, the first year it was too hot and nothing survived (that we noticed) the second year it was too wet and everything washed away down slope. We went with it again this year as it makes the most sense for us given our terrain, we can't really till the hill and it's easier to broadcast. We add alot more seed to the equation as well, typically a pound for a relatively small area. I've been contemplating adding some seed into the chipper as we do our bi-annual cleanup, spreading the mulch and seed together.

Good luck!
 
Frank Oudheusden
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Marco - Thanks for this write-up.  I am very interested in this process of scraping in the seed with a rake over mulch for a home-garden size.  How would you go about re-planting in the spring?  Do you just scythe down the winter wheat and let the roots decompose to avoid tilling under the wheat?  Then plant typical garden plants around the cut stalks/roots?  I have not done cover crops before but am considering it this year for organic material addition to my soil and want to maintain no-till.  Very helpful post.  Thanks.

Marco Banks wrote:It's tough to get that initial crop to grow when you are transitioning from a grass field to a no-till garden/field.

If you are doing this on a commercial scale, a no-till drill is the piece of equipment used by farmers.  Basically, it has a thin disk that slices through the soil and then the seed drops down into that thin slit before it closes back up.  It makes a minimal slice through the soil but doesn't turn everything over.  Within a couple of days, you can't even tell that the blade sliced through the soil.  In reality, it doesn't cut much deeper than your seed planting depth, so it may be as little as 3/8ths of a inch, or at most, 1 inch for something like corn.  For winter wheat, you'd only plant that a half inch deep or so.  So a no-till drill barely penetrates the soil but puts the seed down right where you want it in perfect rows.  Oh, and you'll need a tractor to pull it.

On a home scale, you obviously wouldn't buy a big farm implement like that.

You could mow (or better yet, graze) the existing plants down as low as possible, and then broadcast your seed over the top.  You will get the best germination if you have good soil to seed contact, so it is helpful to run a roller over it to push the seed down onto the soil surface.  Then keep it evenly moist for several weeks while your seed germinates.  I've seen where people broadcast their seed, and then they drag a harrow behind the tractor over the top of the fresh seed.  It rips at the soil surface and chews it up a bit, hopefully mixing the seed down into the soil a bit.  Again, rolling the seed flat after you've harrowed is recommended.

If you just broadcast without rolling, you'll still get a certain percentage of germination.  Seed tends to drop down and find little nooks and crannies.  They wiggle down through the surface organic matter until they can't go much further.  If you water it regularly, the seed then begins to swell up and hopefully find good purchase with the soil surface.  Roots emerge and work their way down into the soil --- again, as long as the seed stays sufficiently moist and the soil is most enough for the seeds to make purchase with it.

Once you've been mulching regularly with wood chips or any other mulch, and once that mulch has broken down a bit, then it's pretty easy to dig shallow furrows with a triangular hoe, plant your seed, and backfill the furrows.  Or what I usually do with cover crop seed, I just broadcast it over the mulch and then use a rake to roughly scratch it in.  It isn't tilling, per se, as the soil remains mostly undisturbed.  You're just pushing the mulch around, for the most part.

If you choose to seed first and then come back with mulch to cover the seed, then don't mulch too thick.  MAYBE 2 inches of chips at the most.  But don't be surprised if that really knocks our germination percentage.  Fresh chips are not a good growing medium.  Once they've decomposed a year, yes, but fresh chips are good at surpressing seeds, not germinating them.  That's why it makes such a great weed surpressing mulch.
 
Richard Gorny
pollinator
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Location: Poland, zone 5
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Oh boy, I have been trying to sow cover crop without tilling many times, with no luck until recently. My situation is different though, I have poor, sandy, fast draining soil where only lichens, clumping grass and pine trees grow.
I was trying various methods over the last few years -seed balls was miserable failure, just broadcasting seed mixes into standing grass has failed as well. This year I have finally managed to get it working. I have mowed the area  and I have sprinkled some compost, leaf mold and worm castings. I have watered it as much as I could. I have broadcast seeds and I have covered them with approximately 5-10 cm (2-4 in.) of coarse mulch (slightly spoiled hay) and I have done it all just before few days of rain. This last part seemed to be critical. It has been raining for a few days, so oth mulch and seeds did not dry out. Also it seems that al the birds that previously were eating my seeds were hiding in the woods. Seeds managed to germinate and sprout before rains ended. Now I have my first cover crop sticking out of the mulch and it seems it will be doing fine until first frost kills it.
 
Robert Fairchild
Posts: 20
Location: Kentucky, USA
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What do you plan to plant next year? How will you manage the crop? Till or no-till? Where are you? Still a little early to plant winter wheat. Vetch and/or crimson clover would be good if you want some nitrogen fixation. You could weaken some of the existing vegetation with a few weeks under black plastic. Tillage would give better soil contact for the seed and weaken the existing cover. That's why tillage is used.
 
Thyri Gullinvargr
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I just read One Straw Revolution. For seed balls Fukuoka would cover them with the straw from the previous crop. This protected them from birds. It was also important to toss the straw every which way (like it would fall naturally) instead of putting it down neatly because if it was put down neatly the seedlings wouldn't be able to push through it as they grew.

The cycle, as best as I can remember, was:
  • Cut down the rice for threshing
  • Broadcast seed balls with winter grain, rice and clover. The grain (barley, I think) would grow while the rice stayed dormant.
  • Throw the rice stalks on the field (which protected the seed balls from birds)
  • Cut down the winter grain for threshing
  • Throw the grain stalks on the field
  • At some point he'd flood the field for 7-10 days to kill the weeds and weaken (but not kill) the clover to give the rice plants a chance to get going without being shaded out. The clover would spring back and grow under the rice.
  • He'd flood the field again as needed in August, but not leave standing water, to keep the soil at the moisture level needed for the rice. Apparently the rest of the growing season there's plenty of rain.


  • I believe he said he'd throw chicken manure on the straw from his chickens too. I also think I remember him talking about having chickens and ducks running around his fields. Unfortunately I returned the book to the library, so I can't look up particulars.
     
    Wes Hunter
    Posts: 393
    Location: Missouri Ozarks
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    I am currently trying to transition from tillage to no-tillage, using cover crops to break the cycle.

    I've got 1/4 acre that will be planted with overwintering alliums (garlic, shallots, potato onions) this October.  This spring I had it disked, then sowed it to oats and wheat, which were cut for mulch for my potato patch.  Then moved some geese in to graze weed regrowth.  Currently the vegetation consists primarily of weeds--common ragweed, some lambsquarters, and annual grasses.  I mowed that, then broadcast buckwheat.

    My plan was to watch for the buckwheat to germinate, then mow as close as possible to give the buckwheat the edge, but the buckwheat sprang up overnight and got rather tall in a hurry!  Now I'll just have to mow high, to knock back the weeds that are taller than the buckwheat.

    So the buckwheat will frost-kill sometime around mid-October, ideally giving me a mulch to plant into.  I think I'll broadcast some oats as well, which will grow longer than the buckwheat but will die back if it gets cold enough (not a given).  That would give me another layer of mulch.

    Anyway, the buckwheat broadcast into existing vegetation seems to be working.  It's a fast grower, so it ought to mostly hold its own.  I figure it'll be a multi-year process anyway, transitioning over to no-till and gradually beating back the weeds.
     
    Jared Woodcock
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    We use deep mulch to establish no till gardens in sod. If it doesn't kill back the weeds and sod then your mulch wasn't deep enough.

    As for cover cropping in this system it is unnecessary. You are adding so much more organic matter with the deep mulch than you would with the cover crop. Once you have it established and weed free from a few growing seasons then you can scratch cover crop seed in as was previously mentioned. I have done a few small trials and our winter small grains as a cover crop only produce enough mulch to cover a 5th of the bed that they grew on. I gather leaves in the fall and put them on very heavily. This is limited to a small scale garden of around an acre or less. Once the garden is established then you just keep rotating the crops and adding whatever amendments that are needed, no heavy tillage and no cover crops.

    Jay and Paulie have been doing this method for a while and Jay has told me that he feels that he doesn't feel cover crops are necessary in his system either.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNV65xetK7w
     
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