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High Mowing Organic Seeds
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Research Report - The Importance of Nitrogen - Jodi Lew-Smith, Ph.D - Director of Research & Production

As the last of our seed crops go into the ground, I find I’ve been thinking about nitrogen. This is something of a problematic nutrient in organic systems, mostly because the obvious organic sources – compost and manure – contain so much phosphate that we quickly create situations of excessive phosphate levels, which can tie up other nutrients so they become unavailable to plants even when they’re technically present in the soils.

Nitrogen Fixing Organic Field PeasThe ideal organic solution to nitrogen fertilization, of course, is the planting of leguminous cover crops, which add nitrogen and also organic matter without adding phosphorous. However cover cropping isn’t any kind of a solution to last-minute requirements, and doesn’t work all that well as a side-dress for crops requiring heavier doses of nitrogen. For small areas of intensive cropping you can use blood meal, soybean meal, or alfalfa meal, but all three are generally pretty expensive to use on any kind of a larger scale.

The percent organic matter in soils also plays a key role in the formula, for each percent of organic matter releases a set amount of nitrogen over the course of a growing season. This means you can use your soil test to help calculate your nitrogen input required. This is useful, and building organic matter is always a key component of a good management strategy.

Since increasing the nitrogen in your soil through cover cropping requires advance planning, now is a good time to think about which nitrogen fixing cover crops fit into your particular crop rotations for this summer and fall, and into next season. 

Clover is a good nitrogen fixer, providing up to 100 lbs/acre of nitrogen, and its long taproots bring up nutrients from the depths of the soil. Clover is best planted in spring, summer, or fall and left overwinter, then incorporated after its second full season of growth.

Peas are another excellent source of nitrogen that can add 170 lbs/acre. Peas can be sown in early spring as soon as the ground can be worked and throughout the summer. The final sowing for overwintering or a fall cover should be about 6-8 weeks before first fall frost. Peas prefer cool and moist conditions and will survive through many frosts (winter kills at about 15°F).  Peas are often sown alongside oats, which act as a “nurse crop” for the peas to climb. 

Hairy Vetch is vigorous crop praised for its winter hardiness and nitrogen fixation. Best sown in the fall, it is often grown with winter rye as an overwintering cover that will regrow vigorously in the spring.

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