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Beginner guidance on cover crops

 
                            
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I am considering the use of cover crops (clovers, alfalfa) in my raised beds to improve soil health and also possibly as a living mulch.

I can't get past the idea that I am planting grass into my beds. The main point of raised beds was to get it above the grass line so grass won't get into it...now I am contemplating putting grass (well, legumes) into there intentionally...

So, how does this work? Practically, when its time to sow seed, am I going to have trouble doing so because of all the plant material? Imagine trying to sow in your yard it would be difficult. Right now, my raised bed soil is very soft and easy to plant either seed or transplants. I'm afraid integrating this cover crop will:

1) make planting hard by having to dig through living material
2) Compete with my production plants
3) Increase the total amount of work needed, b/c I'll be trying to keep the clover down (in the case of living mulch)
4) Forever leave my beds a mess

Maybe I would be better off just doing intensive gardening and composting and adding compost (or compost tea) to the beds/plants for nutrition and organic matter? Why, really, should I use cover crops for a small-scale garden?
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally, and this is just me, I would not use non-edible cover crops for a small garden unless for some reason you don't want to plant vegetables there for a season.  During the growing season, the vegetables themselves will be sufficient cover for the soil, especially if you plant a polyculture - that is, several different kinds of vegetables together in one bed.

Regarding an edible cover crop to mix with other vegetables, I'm currently having good success with chickweed Stellaria media which forms a beautiful low cover intermixed with my lettuce and beets.  It is also a good salad green in its own right. However being a weed it might eventually compete too much with the other plants.  This is the first year I've grown it. 

You might consider putting in a few annual clover plants as a groundcover among your other vegetables if you want the benefits of a legume.  Or you could plant beans, or a leguminous flowering plant such as lupine.

Here's a bed with chickweed, beets, sunflowers, lettuce, poppies:


 
                            
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Location: Southern California, Zone 10
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I'm new at cover crops myself, so take this with a grain of salt...  I planted mine (clover and vetch) after clearing the bed in fall. It's now lovely and blooming but soon will get chopped and dropped, covered over with dirty straw from the chicken run, and then that area will be planted with veggie seedlings.  So the cover crop and the veggies will not be competing with each other because they won't be growing at the same time, but the soil still gets the benefit of the cover crop.  I don't know whether that would work in your climate (whether you can grow stuff over the winter), or what you are doing with your beds (broadcasting seeds for greens, for example, probably wouldn't work with this due to the straw mulch), but it's one idea.  Best of luck with your beds.

 
Tyler Ludens
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Ah, that clover is so beautiful!    Do you need to trim it back, or do you just let it grow as much as it wants? Did the collard come up through it from seed, or is the collard a transplant?
 
George Lee
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Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
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H Ludi Tyler wrote:
Ah, that clover is so beautiful!    Do you need to trim it back, or do you just let it grow as much as it wants? Did the collard come up through it from seed, or is the collard a transplant?
Thanks!! Ludi - It was a 3-4in transplant, then again the clover was a bit shorter when it went in. There were more,but I ate 'em.  I pluck it back around each transplant that goes in, so they receive some good light coverage. Most vegetables growing are quite shade-tolerant as is so no worries..
 
                            
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Follow up:

Another issue I can  see with cover crops, is it would allow more opportunity to allow undesirable grasses. With a "clean" bed, I can just hoe or pull any grass. But if its filled with "cover", it would be harder to identify any invasive grasses. I would just be letting it all grow...

Is this an issue for those using covers?
 
Leila Rich
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Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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I think there's quite a difference between cover-crops and living mulches.
I haven't tried to use living mulches in my garden: in my temperate climate, many things don't tend to die down, (or even slow down much) in winter, and while Iv'e got tons of clover growing outside the beds, the roots are so enormous and the plants so vigorous that I can't envision them 'sharing' with even the most robust veges, and since I move things around a bit, it seems it would be really difficult.
Remember though, I haven't actually tried, so I could be talking total rubbish!
The clovers I grow are perennial and annual crimson clover grows 4-5 ft round here, so we're back to the sharing issue...
I often plant into my cover-crops though, if I'm planning to cut  it before seed-set: lupins, mustard and  buckwheat are very amenable. Cereals and favas are a bit more aggressive!
I basically mulch the heck out of nearly everything with whatever I can lay my hands on.
I think there's a zillion variables, and one is definitely what you are comfortable with and curious enough about,  to try.

 
George Lee
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Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
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Sure there's a difference, and it's called SCALE...
 
Joe Skeletor
Posts: 113
Location: Blue Island, Illinois - Zone 6a - (Lake Effect) - surrounded by zone 5b
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you can download this book for free from the SARE website. Lots of info about different cover crops -=

http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition
 
Terri Matthews
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Location: Eastern Kansas
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I once planted Austrian peas in the Fall: the next year the soil had a wonderfull texture! And, the Austrian peas died in out winter freezes.

Garden space is more precious than it was. I am no longer willing to give a section over to Austrian peas for several months: instead I got a deal on garden peas at the end of the growing season.  I planted the garden peas more thickly than recommended: hopefully I will get peas anyways.

The foliage will stay as a mulch, and next year I will plant something good among the dead pea vines. Or, if the peas die in the summer heat, perhaps I can plant some fall greens? Decisions, decisions!

Garden peas is as much a legume as clover is, but it might give me peas. Next year (or this fall) I expect to have the benefit for the next crop from growing legumes.
 
Suzy Bean
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There was a pretty nice article, "Improve your soil with Cover Crops" in Mother Earth News, No. 236. The author talks about the concepts of rhizodeposition and biodrilling, and then goes into 6 plant options and their different characteristics/benefits (buckwheat, barley, oats/winter peas combination, Hairy Vetch, and cereal rye It's worth checking out!
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/cards
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