As an organic grower I think about where good plants come from, and the first elements that come to mind are sun, water, nutrients and good soil structure. We know that when we nourish the substrate of life, then life will manifest! The quintessence of this is found in a single statement, “Keep it covered.” If we cover the soil from the sun, then the sun can work on plants, which eat light, and not on the soil, which is a delicate web of bacteria and fungi that do not like light. There are really only 2 organic ways to keep the soil covered: by mulching with carbon-rich debris (compost, decomposed straw, leaves, etc.) or by growing a cover crop that can then be mowed back to create mulch. Growing a cover-crop in place is significantly cheaper and less labor-intensive than bringing in mulch from somewhere else. That is why most of us are growing cover crops!
As with anything garden or agriculture oriented, it is all about the timing. During the growing season, most of us want to be growing the primary plants, whether it be corn and tomatoes for family sustenance or skullcap and valerian to calm our nerves and help us sleep at night. All of these crops are going to be healthier, yield better, contain higher nutrient/medicinal constituent content, and be more sustainably produced when grown in coordination with cover crops. During the fallow season, then, we want to grow cover crops.
Corn is probably the most commonly grown food crop in the US. Generally corn is direct-seeded in the spring or early summer. A fine seedbed is prepared by forking and raking or plowing and discing, and the corn seeds are planted in rows. This means that for some time the soil is bare to the sun, but not for long! When the corn plants reach knee high (around the 4th of July), they may be cultivated one last time. At this point crimson clover seed can be spread between the rows, raked in and tamped. The clover will quickly germinate in the nutrient-rich soil and will soon cover the ground. At the same time, the clover will make nodules on its roots that fix atmospheric nitrogen, free nutrients available to the corn plants as they grow and mature. This is the gist of the value of the covercrop—it conserves water, it keeps back weeds, thereby making further tillage unnecessary, while it covers the soil against damage from the sun. Cover crops provide nutrients to replace what was lost when the soil was tilled in the first place, and to replace the nutrients pulled from the soil by the primary crop. One begins to visualize this as a self-replenishing cycle.
Between the rows of perennials, grow cover crops. Use buckwheat, fenugreek, winter rye or red clover to carpet the pathways. Till the pathways, strew in the seeds, rake lightly and tamp. The barren pathways will soon become lush carpets, perfect for bare feet, excellent at holding in the moisture, an inviting environment, mud-free and. . . free. When the pathways get too high for good access, you can mow them down with a lawn mower. This will make mulch in place, mulch that will soon break down into compost, and this compost in turn—builds plants.
In the fall of the year, plant oats and peas on any barren soil. Fork under or till in the vestiges of the primary crop (potato tops, burdock leaves, calendula plants, sunflower stalks, etc.) and sow oats and peas. The birds will want to eat this easy seed food, so lightly till in the seed or rake it in, and then tamp and make sure there is sufficient moisture for germination. It doesn’t take long. A cover-crop of this nature will stay green all winter long in Zones 6 and up. If you live in one of the colder Zones, plant your cover crop as early as you can, and allow it to overwinter under the snow. It helps!
My interest in cover crops lead me to some deep historical research, delving into the way of life in Europe back in the 1800’s, when the multi-species organic pasture was the staff of life for people on the farm, in the village and in the cities. The pasture, when ruminated by the cow, made milk for the farmer’s children and for the milkman who left thickly-creamed bottles of milk at doorstep. When winter struck, it was the hay from the pasture that made bedding for the horses and oxen, warmed the newborn lambs and made fodder for all. At the bottom of the haystack, the fines from multiple healing plants (grasses, clovers and medicinal herbs like plantain and yarrow) accumulated and could be gathered up and utilized. The nature-cure doctors knew of the healing properties of these fines, known as “Hay Flower.” They used it for making teas and decoctions, fomentations to heal infection and disease. These days most hay fields are not natural pastures, but I would like to bring back those times—they were good times! That is why I’ve put together a new seed blend, a rich mix of grasses, clovers and medicinal herbs, 100% certified organic, to help farmers and home gardeners restart the multi-species organic pasture. A healing cover crop, as it were. Like the nature-cure doctors, I call it “Hay Flower.”
I hope you get into cover-cropping. It saves sweat and is appreciated by the entire cycle of life—the worm, the crow, the hummingbird, the mycorrhizal fungi—all benefit. It makes your growing be part of the cycle of nature, and makes good medicine.
19 thoughts on “Cover Crop Planting Guide”
Can people and customers interested in the farming and gardening organic vegetables, fruits, plants and flowers, come to your nursery and work and observe how to do different things?
Hi Larry, Thanks so much for thinking of us in this way. We are not an educational institution like that, but I do recommend the Herb Pharm herbaculture program, it is the best! Richo
Is it just regular old straw that you reference in question 1, about killing off grass?
Thanks so much for sharing your know-how!
Best to use organic rice straw that is in bales and peel off a thick flake and lay that down without fluffing it. Wet straw bales or composted straw are very heavy and difficult to ligt, separate and apply. Know that any seed that you have in your bale is likely to germinate and grow, so the more weed-free the better. Since rice requires specific conditions to germinate and grow, and the straw is soft and non-allergenic, then this is why to use rice straw.
I mulched my yard with hay and after a while all these new blade of vegetation starting spring up. I had to weed out the new growth because it was overtaking everything in the garden and lawn. Next time I will be sure to use straw instead. So you have any thought about this because I an passionaately learning about organic farming, gardenind and wilderness landscaping on our home urban farm and sanctuary
Precisely, mulching can easily become a situation where one weed is replaced by another. Rice straw is really the best. Comfrey leaf is also very good. People who mulch often respond to weed growth by pushing over the weeds and mulching again on top, which actually works pretty well, but is endless.
Thanks for the heart and mind story about cover crops. Hits the spot !! You run a wonderful company.
My seeds I bought from you are all sprouting here in Brazil.
Thanks for feeling like family
Hello Pete, It is true that we are a global family connected by the love of plants. Not only are we connected in the present moment, but the plants also connect us to our ancient roots! Richo
Aloha, I love the idea of growing arnica – I use it a lot! I live at 1200’ on the wet side of Hawaii Island. Which variety of arnica do you suggest?
Hi Ananda, I recommend the Arnica chamissonis, which is by far the most adaptable and ultimately most productive species. Richo
Wonderful information.We have bought many seeds from you over the years. I have about 45 acres in pasture that I am growing organically. Do you have any books you recommend to help me in this process?
Hi Lucy, I always recommend “Making Plant Medicine” but in terms of organic pasture management, I don’t have any recommendations beyond finding an old-timer that still remembers how things were done back in the day. That, and jumping right in, which it seems you have done, and the earth teaches better than any 2-legged can do! Richo
I bought a house 3 years ago on 1/4 acre land.. there was nothing planted on it but this incredibly vigorous grass… I would like to make a big vegetable garden but dont have the strength to dig out/remove this tough grass.. can I plant a cover crop right onto the grass and would that kill the grass maybe so that next spring I could maybe just mow it down and put planting dirt on top? or will the grass still survive and be an issue in my garden soil? Im so confused about how to get rid of this grass to make a vegetable garden : (
any thoughts you have would be most welcome
Thanks for your note. 1/4 acre is a big piece and probably more than what is needed for a household garden. If it was me, I’d choose my best spot (human access, deer non-access, good sun, availability of water) and deeply mulch it now with straw flakes about 6 inches thick. You can contract this to be done. The straw will kill the grass and you can plant your garden in the spring. Please note that you cannot strew cover crop seed on grass and expect any results–you need to prepare a seedbed before planting cover crop seed. Richo
Oh, thank you so much! I did not realize I could do that with straw, I am so pleased! That is something I am able to do! I will try it!
Thank you for this helpful post!
You kinda stopped short on your Hayflower article. HOW do you process this patch? You stated that it should be mowed. So, do you grind up all of the seeds and leaves of the plants, or what other process do you use? If grinding is necessary would a blender be the thing to use to do that?
Most people ask me to write less, it is very complimentary to hear from someone who wants more! The hayflower mix is available in several different sizes to cover successively larger areas of land. The coverage is carefully explained on this page https://strictlymedicinalseeds.com/product/hayflower-medicinal-pasture-mix-organic/
The traditional method of extracting hayflower is to cut the hay, allow it to field dry, make a haystack, and rob the fines from under the stack. To get maximum extraction of the fines, you can cut the hay, allow to sun-dry, then put on a (swept) cement slab and thresh with a willow stick, turn the hay and thresh again, then remove the stems and sweep up the fines and bag for later use. The fines do not need to be ground up, they are usable as-is: poultice, decoction, fomentation. For more information on Hayflower in early naturopathy I suggest reading (from the Hevert Collection) “Herbs in Naturopathic Medicine” Ed. Sussanna Czeranko, ND, BBE. Richo