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Cover crops in Harsh clay in Santa Barbara

 
                                          
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One of my family members has 15 acres of an abandoned olive farm in Santa Barbara. It was more or less destroyed in a fire a few years back but now a few olive trees are coming back. To my joy I was given free reign to do what I want with the unused land. The only problem is that I don't live in sb and I could only go there about once every 2 weeks. I want to do some really hands off techniques starting off on a small area which would be easy for my family member to maintain. So what I want to do is start building the soil and biomass by planting a lot of cover crops during the winter when we get rains. And then take it from there. I was thinking of some kind of cowpea, Sudan grass, clover, possibly lupin, diakon radish and buckwheat. My question is do you think I would be able to grow these directly on this unforgiving clay soil? And do you think starting everything with a ton of cover crops  is a wise thing to do in this case?
 
Tyler Ludens
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Would you consider installing some rainwater harvesting earthworks in conjunction with planting cover crops?

Personally I would not include Sudan grass, because it can be invasive and can be toxic to grazing animals. I would see if there's a native grass that might be better. 

Here's a listing of cover crops for California and their features:  http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/cgi-bin/ccrop.EXE ; (they include sudangrass  )
 
                                          
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H Ludi Tyler wrote:
Would you consider installing some rainwater harvesting earthworks in conjunction with planting cover crops?

I want to plant the cover crops first and then start swaleing and making raised beds when the cover crops are established. Or do you think I'd be better off doing them at the same time?
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I would do the earthworks first and as you complete each swale or basin, plant it.  That way you can be accomplishing both at the same time.   

 
Willy Kerlang
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Ludi's idea makes a lot of sense to me.  The thing is, once you plant the cover crops the first time you don't want to be disturbing the earth afterwards, or at least you should disturb it as little as possible.  If you plant cover crops and then dig up the area to make your swales, you're undoing the progress you've already started.  Not only will the plants break down and add matter to the soil, but their roots will begin to break up the soil below. 
 
John Polk
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I am familiar with that region, and would say earthworks and cover crops are equally important.  In those foothills, swales without a good ground cover could result in massive landslides once the heavy rains come.

Make certain to get the cover crops planted early enough that they have a good solid root structure before the heavy rains.  That will slow down the runoff enough that you will not be overloading the swales with all of the water.

A good ground cover will hold most of the rains on your fields, with the remainder in the swales, where it will continue feeding water into your soils.  You will appreciate this bank of water in the long dry summer months...so will your plants.

Leave as many of the olives in place as you can.  Each one will store +/-100 gallons or more of water in the rainy months.
 
Brenda Groth
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you might consider rye, it is a nutritious grain that is grown here in Michigan on heavy clay soils to feed the soil and the wildlife
 
Perry Way
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Wow, sounds like loads of fun!  That is awesome!  I'm further up the coast in San Luis Obispo.  I'd offer to help but I have my own project going on that occupies every weekend for me http://perrylandoffthegrid.blogspot.com/ , but if there's a special need and you need extra help you might consider sending me a message as I'm an hour or so away.  I take it the property is likely up off the highway 156 and not in the actual town area of Santa Barbara.  If I knew the location I might be able to provide you some information about local climate, what to expect because I know a great deal about the nature and geology and geography of the central coast.
 
                                          
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John Polk wrote:
I am familiar with that region, and would say earthworks and cover crops are equally important.  In those foothills, swales without a good ground cover could result in massive landslides once the heavy rains come.


Thanks for the advice. do you think  it would be realistic to make big swales by hand? and what plants would you recommend for combating the landslide issue. most  of the land is on a hill so that could be a problem. 
 
Tyler Ludens
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Seems like a lot of little swales would be less likely to want to slide....
 
John Polk
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My feeling is that the steeper the slope is, the more (closer together) swales, the less the danger.  The more water you can get to soak into your soil, the less there is to accumulate in the swales.  Too much concentrated water in the swales is not only added weight, but also, possibly more water than the soil under the swale can hold.  Liquified soils are much more prone to (downhill) movement.

A good topo map is handy for laying out a plan.  Go here:
http://mapserver.mytopo.com/homepage/index.cfm
and locate your property.  'Pretend' that you are buying a map.  Once you have "your purchase" set up, you are offered the opportunity to preview it before giving them your CC information.  Bookmark that page, and download the image.  You can now print out as many copies as you need to devise your plan.  It is a very handy tool for overall planning of your site.

Good topsoil it too valuable to be giving to your downhill neighbors (not to mention the liability issues!).
 
Michael Radelut
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urbanresistance wrote:
Thanks for the advice. do you think  it would be realistic to make big swales by hand? and what plants would you recommend for combating the landslide issue. most  of the land is on a hill so that could be a problem. 


How steep is it ? Could a tractor with a Keyline plow get through it ?
 
Tyler Ludens
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Thanks for the topomap link - I went and got my nice (free) map. 

 
John Polk
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Yeah.  It's a great, free tool for anybody dealing with any kind of slope!  Worth its weight in pixels.
 
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