I was selling plants at my nursery booth this week when a woman walked up to me.
“I did what you told me,” she stated.
I couldn’t remember when we had talked but she looked familiar. And I certainly couldn’t remember what I’d told her to do.
I wondered… what HAD I told her to do? Did I tell her to knock off one of my mortal enemies? Build a perpetual motion machine? Start drinking kefir to rejuvenate her intestinal flora?
She continued. “I threw beans all over the old chicken run.”
Ah, that’s right. I had told her to use black-eyed peas as a green manure. Thank God. I was afraid it was time to trade in my identity for a new one.
“Now the beans are producing pods… can I harvest those or should I just till them all into the ground?”
I told her to go ahead and harvest them, then either run the chickens over the patch again or chop them down and feed the tops to the compost heap.
Her green manure crop was planted in my favorite fashion: from the supermarket! On my recommendation, she had bought three bags of black-eyed peas on my recommendation, then soaked them overnight and thrown them around an area that her chickens had stripped of all vegetation.
She told me the beans had rapidly grown and formed a solid patch of green where there had once been bare sand.
For some reason, God doesn’t seem to like bare soil. Nature is designed to cover the ground, either through the falling of leaves from above or via colonization by plants. Both mulch and plant cover hold in fertility, enhance fungal and bacterial soil webs, shade the ground, decrease the effect of the baking sun, and add organic matter.
As we enter fall and the harvests of summer are being brought into storage, there’s always a temptation to just till the ground up and let it go into winter nice, neat, clean and bare.
That’s a mistake!
This time of year is a great time to mulch, and to cover the ground with a final burst of green before the end.
Some green manure plants will carry through the winter in milder parts of the nation, though in most of the US they’ll fail when the temperatures fall too far.
Other than keeping the ground covered and nurturing the soil web, green manure crops have a high value as organic matter.
I know – when you look at a stalk of rye or a pea plant, it doesn’t look like much.
Fortunately, plants are like icebergs. You might see a small top… but there’s often a LOT of roots beneath the surface, ranging right down to the microscopic level. Those roots are opening up the soil as they grow, then leaving organic matter and air pockets behind when the plant dies.
The sugars exuded by roots also feed a lot of soil life. Tilled, rootless soil is a lousy place. Just think of your gut when you’re on strong antibiotics. Not good!
Some cover crops, like mustard, also can kick out nematodes or other pests.
What To Plant
As it gets colder outdoors, you need to plant cover crops that will either make it through the winter or at least put on some decent growth before they freeze.
Grains are an excellent choice for keeping the ground alive. Some peas can take some pretty low temperatures, as do fava beans. Toss in some brassicas like radishes, mustard, collards or turnips for an even better mix of species.
Buckwheat likes cool weather and rapidly pops up, making it a nice way to cover bare soil. If you have time before frost, toss some seeds around. If time is short it’s not worth bothering. Buckwheat can’t take freezing well.
Planting one type of cover crop is better than nothing; however, I’m convinced you get better results by mixing multiple things together.
A simple fall mix might contain:
This is just a start. You might even get to eat some pretty good stuff out of this green manure mix. Figure out what works for you!
Where to Get Seeds
Some seed outlets like Johnny’s Selected Seeds have their own cover crop mixes for spring and fall.
Personally, I tend to just hit the local supermarket and pick up some bits and pieces. Getting brassica seeds isn’t always possible there; however, your local farm supply store (if you live in the country) will sometimes have bulk seed you can add to your mix. Green manure doesn’t have to be rocket science.
If not, you can also buy fall “wildlife” mixes for hunters and throw those around. I’ve done that as well.
When I toss out handfuls of seed and water them into my beds in fall, I’m looking forward to rich, open, living soil in spring.
The few bucks spent on seed is worth it. Keep cover on the ground and life in the soil and you and your plants will be happy.
Also, if you build that perpetual motion machine, let me know before you go filing any of those pesky patents on it. Maybe we can work together on selling it? Pretty please?