Kathy Ciarimboli is a Sales Associate and Special Projects assistant at High Mowing Organic Seeds. She and her husband homestead on several acres in rural Vermont. Before working for High Mowing, she was the farm manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Palmer, Alaska.
When I got the soil test results back in early April, I started doubting the decision we had made to buy this land five months prior. As I read over the report of poor fertility and a very low pH, my hope for having a productive garden on this new land with plenty to store for the winter was not looking promising. But I’ve learned that when things don’t go as planned there is often a silver lining that sometimes isn’t always obvious at first. Before long, I started realizing that this could be an interesting opportunity to grow our own fertility. We decided that instead of having a garden this year, we could trade work for vegetables with a local farm and dedicate an entire year to building the soil through cover cropping. We could also put animals into the plot at various times so they could leave their manure behind (without us having to do a lot of heavy lifting). Before long, a plan was in place.
Our two sows had the first go at plowing up the grass last fall before the ground froze. We then harrowed and tilled in the spring to create a seed bed for the first cover crop of the season: Field Peas. These went in the first week of May. By late June, they were standing tall and had started putting out flowers. It is at this point that you get the most nodules (where N fixing bacteria do their good work of converting nitrogen in the air to a form that is usable for plants). As I looked out at this sea of pea vines and flowers, I was overwhelmed with a sense of satisfaction because not only was it a beautiful and successful crop, but there was a lot of nitrogen and organic matter that would be going back into the soil to feed the microbial ecosystem. The future was looking bright and I decided that it was now time to work the peas into the soil.
Somehow, however, I hadn’t thought too much about the mechanism for doing this. I read in “Managing Cover Crops Profitably,” a SARE publication that I highly recommend, that field peas are best disced in. We don’t have this piece of equipment so we had to try another way. The mower said “no way” to 3 foot tall vines so I pulled out the scythe to cut them down. It would be an understatement to say that this was not easy work. The combination of my limited scything skills and the fact that the peas had a tendency to lay down, especially anytime the blade got a little dull, made for a pretty sweaty and frustrating experience. Lesson learned? Yes, I should have planted the Field Peas with a grain crop, like Oats, that could support the vines. That would have made cutting easier. And maybe planting peas at the end of the season rather than at the beginning, and then letting them winter kill, might have been a better idea. So after a good deal of sweat, frustration and maybe a few tears (embarrassingly, I have to admit that I reminded myself of my 1 year-old daughter), I got the job done. Okay, actually, my husband also helped a lot too.
Next, we mowed over the peas to help cut them up a bit and even then, when we tried to till, the vines just wrapped around the tines. Luckily, we have a rotary plow for our BCS walk-behind tractor and that did the job of getting the vegetation into the soil. But it took quite awhile as the plow can only work a narrow swath at a time. Did I mention that without the right equipment, you might want to just let the peas break down on their own?!
Next crop: Buckwheat. When we finally got a good seedbed prepared, I realized that it was probably a bad idea to sow the buckwheat (which needs adequate moisture) into the dry soil that hadn’t seen rain for weeks. Just when I started thinking about borrowing a sprinkler from my neighbor so that I could get the seed in, the rains finally came. Buckwheat is a fast grower and now with some moisture in the ground, ours took off. In three weeks, it was a whooping 16” tall! And thanks to good planning and a lot of good luck, our meat birds were 4 weeks old and ready to start foraging. So that’s where we’re at now and looking out at the scene (a sea of healthy buckwheat with little chicks foraging throughout) is again giving me satisfaction and a great deal of hope for our future garden.
The plan now is to move the chickens every day or so allowing them to spread their manure as they forage on the buckwheat. If the buckwheat survives after the chickens are run through the plot, I’d like to put our lambs in there as well. After the buckwheat is turned under, we will put in a third crop this fall. Originally I had planned to use medium red clover because this would survive the winter and I liked the idea of simply tilling out my beds next spring, leaving the clover behind in the aisles. But since the peas grew slower than expected and the buckwheat seeding was delayed because of dry weather, my schedule has been pushed back a bit and I’m afraid it will be a little late for slow-growing clover in this part of northern Vermont. I’m thinking instead of other options like oats, winter rye and/or hairy vetch.
The two most important things I’m learning in this experience is to, first of all, just go for it! Even if you don’t know everything there is to know about cover crops, you can be sure that even a meager cover crop is better than weeds going to seed.
And second, you’ve got to stay open to adjusting your plan as needed. In growing cover crops, it’s good to start with some sort of plan. But maybe the rains don’t come when you need them to, or the crop is growing slower than you thought it would, so you might have to evaluate your options again.
I have also found that there is something so satisfying in growing your own fertility and getting to think creatively and freely about how to best do that. It’s like cooking without a recipe, there are certainly guidelines that are best adhered to, but you can certainly taste and adapt as you go. There is no one right way to build fertility and the options are many: what type of seeds to choose, when to plant, when to turn in, and if you’re putting animals in the mix, which animals to put on which crop and when.
The choices you make will depend upon many factors including the climate you live in, your primary goals (weed suppression, soil fertility, animal fodder, etc.), and the equipment you have or don’t have for cultivation. When in doubt, just plant something that is appropriate for your climate and season and let it grow. Then savor the satisfaction of looking out at your cover crop that promises a productive, healthy garden next season.
(High Mowing Organic Seeds carries a wide variety of Organic Cover Crop Seeds. )