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Posts Tagged ‘cover crops’

Cornstalks and Machete

Use a machete to cut corn stalks into manageable lengths for the compost pile.

As you harvest the last of your summer crops, realize that the steps you take now are the beginning of next year’s garden. You could just leave everything as it is, looking not so good through the winter. Mother Nature likes to keep things green, so will provide her own seeds to fill in the space if you don’t. That’s where the unwanted weeds come from. The spent plants from your summer crops are actually valuable compost material at the ready. Harvest them for your compost pile as you clean up your garden. Next year this time the compost you make now will be available to spread as fertilizer for your garden. If you have grown corn and sunflowers, those stalks are wonderful sources of carbon for your compost. Some folks till all their spent plants, including cornstalks, into the soil. However, since I advocate managing your garden with hand tools, I chop the stalks down and cut them into manageable lengths with a machete, as shown in the photo. The cornstalks then go into the compost pile with all the other harvestable plants, plus some soil. You can see me in action chopping cornstalks and adding them to the compost in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. When you look at the plants in your garden, make sure to recognize their value as a compost material.

Winte killed oats in late February.

Winterkilled oats in late February.

After you clean up the garden beds by harvesting compost material, you will need to plant cover crop seeds. If you have beds producing food through the winter, that’s great. It’s the rest of the garden I’m talking about. The crops you plant now will determine how each bed is to be used next year. If you intend to have bed space devoted to early season plantings, such as peas, lettuce, greens, and onions, you want the cover crops to be finished by then. Cereal rye, often called winter rye, is a great cover crop for winter. However, it is not so great if you are managing it with hand tools and you want to plant those early spring crops. The rye will have put down a tremendous amount of roots and be growing vigorously in early spring. Options to plant now in those beds destined for early spring crops are oats or Daikon radish, two crops that will winterkill if you get severe enough winter weather. Here in Virginia in Zone 7 we usually have weather that will cause these crops to winterkill, however I remember a few mild winters when they didn’t. I also remember a winter I planted oats in a bed that had compost piles on the bed just to the north of it. The compost provided enough protection to keep the oats growing into the spring.

If you choose the route of planting crops to winterkill, you need to get them planted early enough so that they have a chance to produce a large volume of biomass before the weather turns cold. If you don’t already have these crops in the ground, the time to plant them is NOW. Actually, anytime in the past three weeks would have been better. Another alternative for that space for early spring crops is to mulch it with leaves for the winter. The leaves will protect the soil over the winter and when you pull them back in early spring you will find a fine layer of compost where the leaves meet the soil. The worms would have been working on those leaves all winter. Pull the leaves back a couple weeks before you intend to plant to allow the sun to warm the soil.

Rye and vetch cut at pollen shed.

This rye and vetch cover crop was cut at pollen shed (May 7) and will dry to become a mulch for the next crop.

You want a thick cover of plant growth with any cover crop. Planting at the right time will encourage that. The legumes, such as hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas are often used as fall cover crops. It is best to get them in about a month before your last frost to ensure a good stand. That should encourage you to begin cleaning up the parts of your garden that have finished producing. Not all your garden beds will be host to the same cover crop, so you can do it bed by bed—an advantage over working on the whole garden at the same time. These legumes will begin to grow and will provide protection for the soil through the winter. In early spring they will take off, growing to their full capacity by the time of your last spring frost. You may have seen crimson clover flowering in garden beds at that time. You can cut this biomass with a sickle and add it to the compost pile. It would be a nitrogen component. You could lay it down as mulch right in the bed, but it would soon dissolve into the soil and not last as long as mulch that has more carbon. The advantage of the legumes is the nitrogen they leave in the soil from the nodules on their roots. If you should need the bed sooner than the date of your last frost, you could easily cut the legume a little early, leaving the roots. They are not so tenacious that you can’t plant into the bed soon after cutting.

The winter cover crop that will produce the most carbon for your compost and/or mulch is the rye that I mentioned earlier. It is also the crop that you can plant the latest into the fall and still have a good stand; making it a possible choice after things like tomatoes and peppers that produce until the first fall frost. You can let it grow to seed and cut it in early summer (mid-June here), giving you seed and mature straw. Or, you can cut it at pollen shed (about May 7 here) and leave it in the bed as mulch. Wait two weeks before planting to let the roots begin to die back. The bed would be suitable for putting in transplants, but not for seeds at that time. Often rye is planted with a legume. If you are planting late in the season, choose Austrian winter peas as a companion.

The information in my DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan and my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, helps you to determine how to plan these cover/compost crops into your crop rotation. In the DVD you see me explaining a four bed rotation as I fill in the crop selections on a whiteboard. The book has three sample garden maps accompanied by explanations. The sample garden maps in the DVD and in the book have crops filling the beds for all twelve months of the year. Knowing how to fit enough cover crops in your garden plan to provide all of your compost and mulch material is definitely a skill that takes concentration and practice to learn. I hope the educational materials that I have produced will help many gardeners along that path. The most important thing is to just get started and plant something. Make note of your planting time and watch how it grows. The learning is in the doing.Homeplace Earth

 

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Come out and see me at my book signing on Saturday, February 22 at Ashland Coffee and Tea, Ashland, VA 23005. It is a good treatment for the spring fever you will have by the weekend with the warming trend coming. Find more upcoming events at http://homeplaceearth.com/5.html.

Book Signing and Movies-flyer-FACEBOOK

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GrowSustDiet~Cat100%25My new book Grow a Sustainable Diet: planning and growing to feed  ourselves and the earth is now available through my website at HomeplaceEarth.com. The home page contains two recently added preview videos about our DVDs. The purchase page contains more information about the book, plus the “add to cart” button to buy it.

You’ll find more information about what this book is about at my August 13, 2013 post  Grow a Sustainable Diet–the Book! 

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hairy vetch (back) and crimson clover (flowering)

hairy vetch (back) and crimson clover (flowering)

I have just come back from a great weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA. It was an opportunity to catch up with friends (old and new), the Mother Earth News editors, and Ingrid and Sara from New Society Publishers. The internet is nice, but after conversing by email all year it was wonderful to speak in person to all these folks. Speaking of speaking—I gave a presentation on my upcoming book Grow a Sustainable Diet. New Society had posters of all their authors who were speaking, including me. I discovered that my book will carry the Mother Earth News Books for Wiser Living Recommendation tag! I also spoke on Solar Food Dryers. Both talks were very well received. We came home on Monday by way of Pittsburgh to check out the seed library there, but that’s a story for another day. It is time to get back to the garden and plant cover crops.

Right now in Zone 7 (first expected frost in late October) we still have good cover crop choices, but time is running out for the legumes such as clover and vetch if we want to get them off to a good start. The time to plant crops intended to winter kill is past. If you wanted to have radish or oats in your bed, expecting a heavy cover before frost, then dying back in January, you would have needed to plant that a few weeks ago for best results in Zone 7. When planted early enough, those crops put on a lot of growth in the fall, crowding out weeds. Given a hard enough winter, they will die back and leave the soil ready for planting in early spring. However, if they are in a protected spot or the winter is too mild (as it was in 2012), they might not succumb to the weather. One year I had oats planted in a bed with a compost pile just to the north. That pile was enough protection to keep the oats from dying. It would have been a good place to have had winter greens for eating that year.

winter peas in rye

winter peas in rye

Wheat and winter rye could go in now. It is good to plant a small amount of a legume, such as hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas as a companion. Too much legume, especially hairy vetch, can overwhelm the grain crops if you intend to grow them out to mature grain. For more information on these and other possible crop choices, refer to Managing Cover Crops Profitably. If you don’t have a print copy, you can read it online http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition. Winter rye and Austrian winter peas are the two crops that can be planted the latest in the season and still do well. Although I try to finish planting cover crops in October, I’ve planted rye and winter peas in November when necessary.

cover crops in late winter

cover crops in late winter

Except for the crops planted earlier intending to winter kill, these fall planted cover crops will put on limited growth, then slow down when the weather turns cold. They wake up in the spring and start growing like mad. So, if your fall planted cover crops are short through the winter, don’t worry, that’s normal. At the resource page on my website you will find a handout with cover crop suggestions for fall, spring, and summer planting.

winter rye planted in rows

winter rye planted in rows

rye broadcast

rye broadcast

When deciding which cover crop to plant where, look ahead to what will be planted in each bed next year. You want the cover crop to be ready to come out when it is time to plant the next crop. This might not be as important if you were going to till it in, but I’m talking about managing these crops with hand tools. I like to plant rye in rows, rather than broadcast the seed, where I will grow out the rye to maturity the following summer, then plant carrots between the rows of rye stubble. Those become my winter carrots that you can read about here. My blog post Choosing Which Cover Crops to Plant Where will help you with your fall garden planning. It is possible to grow all your compost materials in your garden to feed back the soil as you grow. My post Planning for Soil Fertility and Compost Materials will help you with that.

Managing cover crops using only hand tools can be confusing to new gardeners and to gardeners who have always tilled them in. I understand that, which is why I produced my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. In that hour long video you see me in my garden each month (except August) from March through November, explaining what cover/compost crops are growing and how to manage them.  Besides learning about each crop and seeing them growing, you will see me planting, cutting grains with a sickle, threshing, and shelling corn. My DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan these crops into your rotations to keep your garden beds full all year.

As you clear your beds to make way for cover crops, your spent crops become your next compost pile. Your garden gets cleaned up, the cover crops keep it green all winter, and with the right planning, the beds will be ready for their next crop come spring. Enjoy the adventure of cover crops!Homeplace Earth

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winter carrots-1-18-13-BLOGI have to tell you about the wonderful carrots we are eating right out of our garden this winter. The carrots you see in the photo were pulled January 18, swished in a bucket of water to take the mud off and photographed right in the garden. We had our first snow of the year the night before and you can see that didn’t bother them. The varieties I planted are Danvers 126 (on the left in the photo) and Chantenay Red Core (on the right). The seeds came from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. In their catalog both varieties were listed as having a blunt end, with Danvers growing to 6½’’ long and 2’’at the shoulders and Chantenay 5½’’ long and 2½’’ at the shoulders. I have done a taste test and looked at both varieties side-by-side and I have to say, unless I was really looking for differences, I wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. One was ever so slightly sweeter, but they were both so sweet, it didn’t matter. The carrots of both varieties varied in size. I cut the larger ones into carrot sticks to eat raw and put the small ones into soups and cooked dishes. A favorite snack (or quick lunch) of mine is to cut carrots into sticks and use crunchy peanut butter as a dip. Delicious!

Carrots and rye-in-rows-11-22-12 -BLOGTo have all these carrots available now took some planning. They were planted back on June 27 into a bed that I had harvested rye from, cutting it at maturity for grain and straw. The planning, however, went back further than that. The rye was planted on November 3, 2011. Knowing that I intended to plant carrots next, I made furrows close together with a hoe and planted the seed in the furrows. Otherwise, I would have just broadcast the seed and chopped it in with my cultivator to cover it. When rye and wheat are harvested at full maturity, the roots are already on their way out and the soil is soft. The stubble was in rows and I just hoed between those stubble rows and sowed the carrot seeds, covering lightly. The brown stubble that was left in place gradually decomposed, feeding the carrots. I had to be diligent with watering and replant in a couple areas that had not-so-good germination, but I have been rewarded well. This photo was taken on November 22—Thanksgiving. On the left is the carrot bed we are eating from now and the rye that I planted on October 23. You can see the rows in anticipation for next year’s carrots.

Although these carrots were outside the part of the garden that I keep intense records on, I couldn’t resist finding out how much was really there. Of course, I wasn’t going to dig the whole bed all at once to find out. Neither was I going to weigh each carrot I harvested, something I would have done if I was keeping those intense records. Instead, I dug carrots from a 2’ strip for each variety. The bed is 4’ wide, so I was measuring how much was in 8 ft². From that measurement I calculated how much it would work out to for a 100 ft² planting. The results were 115 lb/100 ft² for the Danvers and 145 lb/100 ft² for the Chantenay. I think these are accurate estimates and the yield could have even been a bit higher. I had randomly harvested some carrots previously, so some could have already been taken from these areas. In this trial Chantenay yielded more than Danvers, however since I wasn’t paying too much attention to details (such as randomly harvesting earlier) I wouldn’t say that one variety out yielded the other—yet. Maybe I’ll be more serious about it next year.

Once carrots (and other root vegetables) get hit with frost they sweeten up. Eliot Coleman writes about that in Four Season Harvest. For that reason I only grow carrots for fall and winter harvest these days. Sort of like enjoying strawberries when they are in season. Summer carrots just don’t taste as good and there are so many other things to be eating from the garden in the summer. I need to plant the carrots so that they will be mature by mid-October. Keep in mind that once the nights cool down, growth slows. After mid-October they are just being held in cold storage in the garden until we eat them. If you have been following my blog you know I have trouble with voles. One end of this bed has had some vole damage, but not the devastation you would expect. That could be because I didn’t mulch these carrots. If we were to have harsher weather than we do, I would mulch with leaves, but not until the cold weather really sets in. I want the voles to find other winter homes before I cover the carrots.

At Christmas I usually give sauerkraut to some friends and family. This year I hadn’t made sauerkraut. I was celebrating the carrots that were bursting from that bed that I had tended all year, so everyone received carrots. I’m not sure they were as excited receiving the carrots as I was giving them, but oh well. Maybe I’ll get sauerkraut made for them next year—with carrots in it.

If you would like to be eating carrots like this in mid-winter, keep that in mind as you make your garden plan for this year. I actually make a note on my garden map to plant the rye in rows in that bed so I don’t forget. You’ve missed the window of opportunity to have rye planted in rows for this year, but maybe you can sneak some carrots in somewhere. Make sure to plant them early enough and water well. Good luck!Homeplace Earth

Learn more about winter carrots at http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/winter-carrots.aspx

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Growing Protein--BLOGWhen we think of protein foods we normally think of meat, dairy and eggs. However, we can also get protein from plants. Beans and grains contain the most, but there is some protein in all vegetables. Of course, if you depended on a plant-based diet for your protein, you would be wise to look to the concentrated plant sources for your needs, unless you are eating a really large amount of food.

Protein is used by the body for building and maintaining. It stands to reason if you are pregnant or nursing, or have been injured and need to repair tissue, your protein requirements would be higher than the recommended daily allowance of 46 grams/day for women and 56 grams/day for men. In my last post I talked about growing potatoes for needed calories. Potatoes have 7.7 grams of protein per pound, so if you ate a considerable amount of potatoes, you would also be racking up the protein. Carol Deppe spent a winter eating a lot of potatoes and wrote about it at http://caroldeppe.com/ThePotatoBin.html. On the other hand, if you ate corn and beans for protein, you would get about 40 grams of protein for each pound of corn you ate and over 100 grams per pound of dry beans. In addition to potatoes, Deppe grows her own beans and corn. If you are interested in growing a significant part of your diet, her book The Resilient Gardener needs to be on your reading list. 

Protein is made up of amino acids, many of which can be synthesized by the body, if enough nitrogen (protein) is available. However, there are eight amino acids, referred to as essential amino acids, that need to come from the food we eat. Animal sources have all the essential amino acids and plant sources do not. Interestingly enough, the ones the legumes (peas and beans) are lacking are the ones that the grains have plenty of, and vice versa. There are reasons for the traditional meals such as cornbread and beans, tortillas with beans, and beans and rice. Even peanut butter on whole wheat bread serves to give you the right combination. Beans and grains don’t need to be eaten at the same meal to get the benefit, but they both need to be in your diet somewhere.

Besides protein and calories, including grains in your garden plan provides carbon in the form of stalks and straw for compost making, necessary for feeding the soil without bringing compost materials in. In my garden I have straw from wheat and rye in June and from cornstalks in the fall for compost. Besides the straw from wheat and rye, much organic matter is left in the soil from their decomposing roots. The legumes are soil enriching crops, leaving behind nitrogen for the next crop. The most nitrogen is left in the soil if the legume crop is harvested at flowering, as you would if you were growing it only as a compost crop. After that, nitrogen is put toward producing the beans or peas. Nevertheless, some nitrogen stays behind and it is good to have legumes in your rotation.     

Other protein sources from your garden are peanuts and sunflowers seeds.  I harvest peanuts before the frost kills the vines, hanging them in the barn for the peanuts to dry on the vines. I pick off the peanuts when they are ready. You can see that in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. The vines become compost material, but that peanut hay could also feed small livestock. Peanuts and sunflower seeds contain 117.9 and 108.9 grams of protein per pound respectively. These crops also supply needed fat in your diet. In addition, they can be used for cooking oil. More information about that is at my post http://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/using-a-piteba-oil-press/. Sunflower stalks, like the cornstalks, are used in the compost. 

In a permaculture garden you might have hazelnut (filbert) trees. Hazelnuts have 57.2 grams of protein per pound. My hazelnuts form a border on the north side of my garden. I wrote about hazelnuts at http://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/hazelnuts-filberts-in-my-garden/. Hazelnuts trees can be pruned, with the trimmings feeding your rocket stove. These nuts also provide fat in your diet and can be pressed for oil. 

 Okay, I know you aren’t going to be eating a pound of beans or corn at a meal. In terms more easy to understand, a cup of boiled cowpeas (the beans I grow) has 13.3 grams of protein. I use ½ cup cornmeal, cooked with milk or water for a good-sized serving of cereal. That cornmeal has 5 grams of protein. A thick slice of homemade whole wheat bread has 3.9 grams of protein. A one ounce serving of peanuts has 7.4 grams. By comparison, a cup of milk contains 8 grams of protein and one large egg contains 6.3 grams. 

If you have enough calories in a varied homegrown diet, most likely you are getting enough protein. As you can see, growing grains for compost naturally gives you protein foods. If you were growing a significant part of your diet, you would also be concerned with having enough calcium. That’s the topic for next time.

 

More about Growing Protein at http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/growing-protein.aspx.

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winter garden--BLOG

winter garden

The intensity of the gardening year is winding down. Once the harvest slows or stops, many people turn their attention elsewhere. However, you’re not done yet. You need to plant cover crops to protect the soil and keep it active. After all, Mother Nature likes to keep herself covered up. Cover crops are a great way to increase organic matter in your soil. In order to plant cover crops, you need to clean up what has finished in the beds. I prefer to think of it as harvesting the biomass from the spent crops for compost material. Your garden gets cleaned up, compost built, and cover crops planted.

There are many choices for cover crops-crimson clover, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, and cereal rye are some of them. If you are tilling everything in the spring, which crop you plant now might not be so important. (It is, actually, if you are planning fertility, but I’m dealing with timing in this post.) If you are managing your garden with hand tools, your crop choice makes all the difference. Knowing what crop will be in each bed next year determines what should be planted this fall.

Think of what time you need each bed ready to plant next year. Some crops can be planted “as soon as the soil can be worked”, which I translate as early March here in Zone 7. Other crops need to be planted only after the last spring frost (about April 26 around here). Then there are the crops that would be planted between those two times. Planning ahead now, you can put in cover crops that will be ready to harvest when the bed needs to be ready for that next crop. Make a map of your garden, showing each bed with the crops for the whole year. What you plant now will be the first crop listed in each bed on your 2013 map (and the last crop in each bed on your 2012 map.)

winterkilled oats-BLOG

winterkilled oats

Thinking of those crops that you will plant the earliest in the spring, peas, lettuce and onion sets come to mind. In those spots, it is best if the previous crop has winterkilled. In that case, the winterkilled cover crop has to have put on all its growth in the fall, meaning it needs to have been planted around the end of August or early September (in Zone 7). I have to admit, I’m a little behind on that myself, and plan to put in some oilseed radish this week. Another choice might be oats. If you want to actually harvest oat seed, it needs to be planted in the spring. The radishes–oilseed, fodder or Daikon–can be harvested for your table for roasting or fermenting until about January 1. Most likely, in Zone 7 and colder, they will die back in January, but if we have a mild winter, like the last one, these crops may need a little help to return to the soil in February. In that case, cut the oats or hoe to chop the radishes and leave everything in place. If you miss your window of opportunity for planting and want to do good things for the soil, plus have it ready for the next crop on March 1, mulch that space with leaves. Pull them off a couple weeks before you want to plant the early spring crop to allow the soil to warm up.

oilseed radish--BLOG

oilseed radish

Austrian winter peas is my crop of choice to precede things that I will plant in early April. It is too short to pull out on March 1, but has put on some growth and made the soil quite nice by April 1, when I normally plant my potatoes. I put the biomass from the winter peas in the compost. It is also the legume that can be planted the latest in the fall and still make a good crop. Planted in early September, it will grow a lot in the fall and maybe even flower. If that happens, it will most likely winterkill. Planting it in October insures that it will be a nice green cover through the winter.

crimson clover--BLOG

crimson clover

The legumes are easy to pull out or cut if you need the bed sooner than expected, and the soil is wonderful and ready to plant in, with minimal preparation.  Other legume choices, besides winter peas, are crimson clover and hairy vetch. I might plant those things in the beds that I will plant a main crop in about the end of April, after the last expected frost. For any of these cover crops, it is to your advantage to leave them growing until they are flowering. At that point they have put on their most growth in biomass, both above and below the ground. In addition, the flowers provide nectar to the honeybees and other beneficial insects. The clovers and vetches do best if they are planted in September or early October here in Zone 7. If you are running late with your fall planting, you can go ahead and put them in and see what happens, but know that an early frost or harsh winter might set them back.

So far, the choices I’ve mentioned are legumes. The real soil builders are the carbon crops, particularly cereal rye. You are going to get the most biomass from the roots with cereal rye, sometimes referred to as winter rye. This is different than ryegrass. What you want looks like wheat seed, not grass seed. If you talk to gardeners with tillers who have planted rye, they will tell you that it is important to till it in early because of the mass of roots that need to be churned up to decompose. If you are managing your garden with a tiller, that is good advice. If you wait past mid-March, the rye will be so thick, above and below the ground, the tiller would have a hard go of it. With hand tools, however, we are gardening smarter, not harder. I consider rye to be an important soil building and compost crop, so I’m not in a hurry to take it out. I want it to express itself as much as possible. If I let it express itself all the way to seed, it will be mid-June before the bed is ready for the next crop. At that point, I will have rye seed to eat or plant again in the fall (after I thresh it out), and straw for compost building. The plant will be finished, and even though you will see stubble in the bed after the crop is cut, you will be able to easily transplant into it or run a hoe through it to make furrows for the seeds of the next crop. Leave the stubble there and it will slowly compost back into the soil. Removing the stubble would be unnecessary work. If you were growing wheat to eat, which I highly recommend even if it is a small amount, you would manage it the same way.

Where I need the benefits of the cereal rye, but want to get the next crop in before mid-June, I’ll cut the rye at pollen shed, which is about May 7 here. That’s when it is flowering, which is the point of the most biomass. If it is cut earlier, the plants will grow back, trying to get to that seed stage. When it is shedding pollen, it is already thinking about going to seed. The roots, however, will be a mass that will be hard to get my garden fork into, let alone turn over. Of course, I’m not going to turn it over anyway. I cut the rye with my sickle and let that biomass lie there for two weeks to settle. Then I transplant into it, using a sturdy trowel or a soil knife for the job. In this case, the roots are on their way to decay, but there is still a lot there, so you wouldn’t be able to just hoe a row for seeds. This is a good system for transplanting things like tomatoes, peppers, and squash–crops that would benefit from the natural mulch that is just there—you haven’t had to haul anything! If the rye was cut May 7, transplanting wouldn’t take place until May 21.

You can see how all this works in the garden in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.  I’ll be at the Mother Earth News Fair this weekend at Seven Springs in Pennsylvania.  Come to my presentations–Plan a Sustainable Vegetable Garden, Sustainable No-till Gardening, GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-farming and Solar Food Drying. Between my talks you can catch me at the Homeplace Earth booth. See you there!

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