Cover Crop Planting Guide

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.