Cover Crops and Soil Health

Photo Cred Johnny's Selected Seeds

Last September we seeded a few beds in lower field with rye. Rye makes for an excellent winter-hardy cover crop. It’s also rather beautiful. It grows tall, and lights up the field with its silvery, sea green hue. Planting beds in cover crops is one important way that we manage our soil at Tangleroot Farm, because healthy soil means healthy vegetables.

Planting unused fields and beds with cover crops rather than leaving them fallow is a key part of responsible land management and pasture maintenance. It is a practice implemented by veg and livestock farmers alike.  Many sustainable farms use this technique to keep their soil ecosystems healthy, and for those raising animals these areas become rich pasture ideal for grazing livestock.

We’re not raising animals at Tangleroot, but we are all about a healthy soil biome. Bare soil is like an open wound. The earth does not want to be exposed, which is why you will see areas of empty soil in your garden quickly become blanketed with weeds. This is the earth’s way of “healing.” Without a root structure to hold all of the important components in place erosion can occur and nutrients leach from the earth.

Cover crops offer protection, habitat, and countless benefits to your soil system. They can even help to reduce pollution. When your soil is at its peak performance it is teeming with life. It is an important habitat for organisms and microorganisms, which in turn fill the soil with the organic matter that feeds our crops. Cover crops help to protect this habitat, so that these organisms can continue to thrive and increase organic matter throughout the year. They also help to maintain a state of homeostasis within the soil, which is a necessary building block for a bumper crop. Cover crops in the legume family such as alfalfa, red clover and vetch, will in fact add nitrogen to your soil, which many of our vegetable plants thrive off of. The roots of cover crops help to break up compacted earth. This allows for better air flow and helps to dry out soil that is retaining the excessive moisture that can lead to rot.

The health of the cover crop tells a story.  For example, in one of our beds the rye grew significantly taller than in the other.  Both beds were seeded at the same time, and the difference was notable.  This told us that in the bed where the rye was stunted the previous season had left that area nutrient deficient.  The soil in those rows needs more time to recover, and build back the nutritious matter required for it to provide a successful base for our next crop planting.

Crop rotation is an important part of regenerative agriculture. Changing our planting plan each season and staggering plantings by intermittently seeding cover crops, reduces disease, pest infestation, and gives each bed a chance to recover the nutrients that have been devoured by our hungry crops throughout the season. For these reasons and more soil management is the cornerstone of sustainable farming.

There’s a lot of magic that happens when planting cover crops. If you’re interested in learning more check out this great article from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education). These are all principals that you can apply on a smaller scale to your home garden.

Last week we mowed the rye down.  It was starting to flower, and if left to go to seed we would be weeding rye sprouts throughout the rest of the season. This summer we will be seeding some of our fields in buckwheat and clover. Looking forward to the beauty and benefits of this next planting!

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