Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cover crops

If you look closely at the open fields of brown mud this week, you'll see tiny little grass stems poking up everywhere-- our winter cover crops. Cover crops do more than just "cover" the bare soil-- they add organic matter, prevent erosion, out-compete weeds, even contribute nitrogen (reducing the amount of fertilizer we need to use). Basically, we grow them & then till them right back into the soil, trying to give back what we have taken. We have, in fact, taken thousands of pounds of produce from the ground this summer & put it on all our tables to be eaten up!

For winter cover crops we use regular grains that you might usually find in bread (but we don't let them make their seedheads): rye and oats. Then we mix in some legumes (bean family) like clover & vetch because this family fixes nitrogen. We have to inoculate the legumes with a bacteria that lives on the roots of the plants & takes some sugars that the plant produces in return for helping the plant pull nitrogen from the air and put it right into the soil so it can be available to the plant roots. It's a wonderful mutually-beneficial relationship. And of course we benefit when we plant our vegetable crops right after this miracle...

I am really excited about learning more about all the possibilities cover crops offer. In the summer we used a lot of buckwheat (like the pancakes) to fight weeds & bring "good bugs" onto the farm. We also tried sorghum-sudangrass (looks like corn) to break up compaction and add lots of mulch to the soil. There are some organic farms that don't have to use any fertilizer at all because they've got their rotation down so well. The farm stays lush and green while it's replenishing the soil, fighting bugs, disease, & weeds.

Sometimes folks ask me "what do I do about pests?" ... the answer, I believe, is prevention. Healthy plants can fight pests themselves. I don't spray a thing, not even "organically certified" pesticides (of which there are a lot), it's just another chore I don't have time for! Last year I tried a few things on the late blight, but the organic sprays are very expensive, and I didn't do nearly enough applications to be effective. So this year the backpack sprayer is getting really dusty, and I plan on letting it stay that way.

Well, back to the farm to seed some more greens before the rain tomorrow. Lots more to talk about though... winter squash harvest coming up soon, garlic planting party in a few weeks, happy Fall Equinox!

Remember when you come to pick up your veggies to bring plastic bags! Big zip-lock bags are great for re-using, as they are sturdy & you can wash them out & dry them & bring them back to the farm next week.

1 comment:

floridabamboo said...

Great post, Erin! It's really good to learn about some of the nuts and bolts of what goes into producing all that food.

Especially the goal of farming in a way that the farm needs little or no external inputs of fertilizer (sounds like you're on your way to that), or pesticides (sounds like you're already there.)

I know you're a busy farmer, but it'd be great sometime if you get a chance to post some pictures of your cover crops.