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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
Posts: 42
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
pollinator
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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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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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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
gardener
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Location: Wisconsin, USA Zone 4b-5a
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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
Posts: 16
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!
 
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