All of my soil is pretty compacted, but the paths in the garden are of course much worse than the soil in the raised beds. What suggestions do you have for cover crops for paths? I'm thinking about clover, but I'm open to any and all ideas. I'd love to plant something this fall that would grow in the spring. I'm in Idaho USA, USDA zone 7a. Average first frost is October 10th.
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Based on your concerns (soil compaction) I would say Daikon Radish. But they are normally planted earlier in the season and then winter kill. They have 3ft tubers and then finer roots that go down 7ft.
My other suggestion would be to add alot of woodchip and straw.
Type of Cover Crop
Onion/Garlic Family, Mint/Thyme Family, Carrot/Dill Family
2) Nitrogen Fixer
Alder, Legume Family - Fava Beans, Dutch Clover, Alfalfa, etc.
3) Soil Aerators/Miners
Diakon Radish, Dandelions, Carrots, Comfrey Family
4) Carbon The Grass Family - Wheat, Rye, Oats, Sorghum, etc.
A healthy mix of all the above is what I would call a good cover crop.
If they are paths, then wood chips would be perfect. Frankly, wood chips are perfect just about anywhere.
It's been shown that a heavy layer of mulch significantly de-compacts soils after a couple of years. In a few years, once the chips, earthworms and the fungi have done their work (along with the normal freeze/thaw cycle), you'll find that things grow much easier. But my concern with attempting to grow stuff on heavily compacted soil will just lead to frustration and very slow progress. So feed the soil by laying down a heavy layer of wood chips and let the decompaction process occur before spending a great deal of effort trying to get things to grow.
Here are some scholarly articles that talk about the effect of mulch in decompaction. This first one talks about restoring decommissioned forest roads, and how heavy wood mulch significantly heals compacted soils so that stuff can grow.
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I have to go with Marco on this one. I tend to dig out my paths a bit so I can lay the chips on thicker. The woody mass acts very spongelike, and at the same time will keep things tidy in all but the wettest of weather. Without exception, every space I treat this way becomes a soil life bioreactor. I encourage this with fungal slurries.
I have to add chips regularly, but there is noticeable improvement in soil condition surrounding my paths.
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You need to define "path" because there is a huge difference between just wide enough for your foot and wide enough for a cart. Then determine frequency of passage. Do you use it once a day to water or once a week to weed or once a month to harvest. If it is narrow and used frequently then mulch is a better choice. If it is wide and you want to mow it and use the clippings to feed the growing bed then a clover lawn would be nice. It is practical where the whole garden is receiving overhead watering and the path is wide enough and disciplined enough to not always walk in the same place. If you will have to walk on the same spot frequently and stones are available or a problem they make a good path solution. That is the path between my porch and the flowers and plum trees that shade the west side of my house.
I would also echo Marco Banks comments for natural wood chips. I recently had the power company drop off a huge pile for free. They will bring more with opportunity. I filled my lanes between 3 row beds with wood mulch many times, also where I am creating new bed 25 x 25 feet bed, I laid ton a lot of cardboard, using weed mulch to cover grass in areas between and around the card board. I have used dug up lawn and flipped upside down on lanes too. Also dump pulled up weeds, and clay mud on the path, then put more wood mulch down.
The wood chips will absorb all nitrogen. But as they breakdown, over 1 or two years, they will release this nitrogen back. As for clover, I pulled up a bunch of goose grass in lawn (great for compost pile or path) went to seed medium red clover in this bare earth in lawn but looks like in about 5 days I have small weeds coming up in the empty compacted earth where I normally walk. :)
I just got my husband, saint that he is, to distrubute the huge pile of wood chips the power company left in our upper parking area to our lower gardens. I'm loving the woodchips in the paths already--they hold moisture, and keep the weeds down. But I want to know, please, Chris Kott, what is a fungal slurry. My wood chips came with plenty of miceleum included and have offered plenty of fungal blooms already. I expect there will be more.
I've also used cardboard on paths this year, and when I've moved the cardboard to reorient paths, or plots, I am amazed by the life beneath the cardboard. I'm a big devotee of sheet mulch!