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Archive for the ‘cover crops’ Category

John Jeavons giving a free lecture at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the evening before a 3 -Day Workshop in 2008.

John Jeavons giving a free lecture at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the evening before a 3 -Day Workshop in 2008.

Ecology Action began more than forty years ago when John Jeavons was seeking the answer to his question of how much space it would take to grow food for one person for a year. The focus on this work expanded to include also growing the crops to feed the soil. Besides researching growing a complete diet and the cover/compost crops needed for the soil, all in as small a space as possible, Ecology Action seeks to educate people worldwide to better feed themselves while building and preserving the soil and conserving resources.

Ecology Action maintains a website at www.GrowBiointensive.org where you will find information about their work, intern/apprentice opportunities, and a list of publications, some of which are in languages other than English. The outlet for Ecology Action’s research is Bountiful Gardens. There, in addition to seeds, you will find the Ecology Action GROW BIOINTENSIVE® publications. You can also purchase the DVD Grow Biointensive: A Beginner’s Guide in 8 Easy Sessions through Bountiful Gardens or watch each session for free at www.johnjeavons.info/video.

In January 2014 Ecology Action held a 2-Week Farmers Course at their place in Willlits, California. This important event contained lectures from twelve different sustainability experts from around the world plus hands-on learning experiences. Through the wonders of the Internet, you now have access to some of the lectures in that course. Having produced two DVDs myself, I have an appreciation of what an undertaking it was to have the Farmers Course filmed, edited, and made available to you at www.vimeo.com/ondemand/ecologyaction. There are four free lectures and another seven lectures available for $1.99 each or $11.99 for all seven.

Ecology Action holds 3-Day Workshops which consist of lectures with a half-day of hands-on activities in the garden. Watching these Farmers Course lectures will give you a taste of what a 3-Day Workshop is like if you’ve never been to one. If you have, these lectures will support what you’ve already learned and supply you with new insights and knowledge. One advantage of being able to watch them on your computer is that you can stop if you need to take a break or if you want more time to take notes.

HTGMV 8--BLOGOne of the four free episodes is a 40 minute introduction to the course which is different than the paid Introduction. The free episode shows a number of speakers from throughout the course besides John Jeavons; including Steve Moore, Jake Blehm, Eric Buteyn, Jed Diamond, Patricia Mayagoitia, Juan Manuel Martinez Valdez, Samuel Nderitu, and Peris Wanjiru. The $1.99 Introduction contains John’s full lecture on the world situation (parts of it are in the free introduction). Although the world situation looks dire, John stresses that we are each the solution to a dying world, which is actually a theme throughout the course.

Ecology Action Self-Teaching Mini-Series Booklets  #34, #32, and #36.

Ecology Action Self-Teaching Mini-Series Booklets #34, #31, and #36.

If you want to get the full benefit of these videos it is good to already be familiar with John’s book How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). If you want to better understand his Diet Design lecture, it would be good to have first read Ecology Action’s Self-Teaching Mini-Series Booklet #31 Designing a GROW BIONTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farm. In the Diet lecture, he refers to worksheets that are found in Booklet #31. Booklets #34 Food for the Future Now and #36 An Experimental 33-Bed GROW BIOINTENSIVE Mini-Farm are also good resources. When attending an Ecology Action 3-Day Workshop it is recommended that you have read the Ecology Action publications ahead of time.

Ecology Action Self-Teaching Mini-Series Booklet #32

Ecology Action Self-Teaching Mini-Series Booklet #32

I consider Ecology Action Booklet #32 GROW BIOINTENSIVE Composting and Growing Compost Materials a companion to John’s Compost lecture. In that talk he speaks of the importance of building organic matter in the soil using compost, specifically compost made from materials grown biointensively in your garden. Compost holds 6 times its weight in water, which is an important consideration in times of water scarcity. You can store water in your soil by using compost to increase the organic matter in your garden. John explains why compost piles that are cool, rather than hot, contain more microbes than the hot piles and puts to rest any thought of needing to turn your compost piles regularly. It is better to let them molder in place, particularly if that place is in rotation in your garden. You can find more information about having a compost pile in your garden rotation in my DVDs and my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. The short and long range benefits of having a carbon to nitrogen ratio greater than 30:1 are also part of this lecture.

The lectures in this series include Operational Seed Security Systems by Sameul Nderitu from Kenya. He explains how his organization, G-BIACK, is encouraging farmers to save their own seeds. Just as in the U.S., farmers in Kenya tend to buy all their seeds each year from seed companies. In Kenya it is illegal for a farmer to sell seeds unless he has fulfilled all the requirements of a seed company, which is prohibitive. So, instead of selling their seeds as seeds, they sell them as food, which is legal.

Samuel’s wife, Peris Wanjiru spoke of Women Empowerment Programmes through G-BIACK . The women in Kenya are predominately illiterate and responsible for all of the household. If G-BIACK can teach the women biointensive gardening, solar cooking, and baking (to mention only a few of the subjects), they can help the whole family much more than targeting the men for education. G-BIACK stands for Grow Biontensive Agriculture Centre of Kenya. Samuel and Peris are graduates of the Manor House in Kenya, which expects its graduates to go back to their communities and make a difference. G-BIACK is the non-profit that they started and it has made a difference in the lives of so many people in Kenya. In turn, those people go back to their communities and teach others.

Steve Moore’s lecture on Farm Layout and Agroecology brings permaculture to the program and explains how a Biointensive garden needs to blend into the natural world and not be separate from it. Biointensive is actually the intensive gardening part of permaculture. Part of GROW BIOINTENSIVE teaching is that at least half of the area managed should be left to the wild. We need the wild areas of the natural world to filter our air and water, store water, and remove toxins.

There is more, but you will just have to watch these videos and check it out for yourself. I hope you take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about GROW BIOINTENSIVE, John Jeavons, Ecology Action, and the whole crew of folks you will be seeing on the screen.

Homeplace Earth

 

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Winter Food Crop Rotation-- croppedIn January 2013 I wrote about what I do to have winter carrots. I begin in the fall of the previous year and plant rye in rows in my future carrot bed. The rye crop is allowed to mature all the way to seed, which around here in zone 7 is mid-June. When it is cut, the harvest is seed and straw. I lightly hoe between the rows of stubble and plant carrots. I keep this bed well watered to get the carrots off to a good start and replant if there are spots lacking good germination. Once everything is growing well the only attention is to weed periodically. The stubble decomposes, gently feeding back the soil for the carrots.

With this post I thought I would show the carrots in a three bed rotation plan that provides greens and carrots for my household through the fall and winter months, while feeding back the soil with cover crops. If you have trouble reading the text on the garden map, click on it and it will open up in a new window, as will all my photos. I grow all of my compost and mulch materials in order to avoid bringing damaging materials into my garden. In the photo you can see the skeleton of this plan. The carrots and kale and collards take up 43% of the space for the year in the total of the three beds. There are 12 bed crop months in each bed for a total of 36 bed crop months. The carrots and greens use 15.5 bed crop months, or 43%. When I plan cover crops I like to have 60% of the bed crop months in the garden in soil building crops. That would mean that the rest of the space in the three beds would need to be devoted to cover crops, plus I need to have some extra in the rest of the garden to make up for the shortage here. The winter rye that is already part of the rotation is a cover crop.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

The map you see is for the calendar year, showing the crops that are already in each bed at the beginning of the year. The green areas in the plan show when each bed is available for crops beyond the carrots and greens winter food plan. There is a lot of flexibility here. First I will give suggestions for filling those areas with cover crops. Bed 1 is already filled all twelve months, so look at Bed 2. You will harvest carrots from the fall until you have pulled them all or the weather warms in March and they start sending up a seed stalk. If you still have some then, pull them and store them in plastic bags in the fridge and you can have carrots for weeks in your kitchen. If you want to save seed, leave some of the carrots in the garden to go to seed. That might take until July so you may want to have those on one side of the bed, leaving the rest of the bed for something else. Only save from one variety to avoid crossing. My plan shows the carrots are there until March 1. That could vary and they could be there until they show signs of bolting. For a soil building crop you could plant fava beans or field peas. Favas and field pea plants can be harvested as green biomass for the compost pile when they reach full flower. In my area the blooms of fava beans tend to fall off when the weather gets hot, making it hard to save seed anyway. If you take them while blooming, you could follow with another legume, such as cowpeas or soybeans for biomass. Buckwheat can be planted anytime in there to keep the bed planted and to attract beneficial insects. The goal is to have the bed free by the middle of August for the kale and collard transplants that will overwinter. It helps to put a low tunnel on this bed then. It provides a frame for shade cloth at transplanting that is replaced by a plastic cover when the weather warrants. This low tunnel can be moved from one bed to the other to follow the brassicas crop.

Greens and roots for winter food.

Greens and roots for winter food.

In Bed 3 you can see that it begins the calendar year with kale and collards already there, left from last year’s planting. That group of crops (carrots early and kale/collards late) were planted in Bed 3 the previous year as you can see by the rotation arrows, leaving the kale/collards there to overwinter. If the harvest is for greens only, the bed will be ready for the next crop in mid-March. If you intend to save seeds from either kale or collards, those plants will be in the bed until June. Favas or field peas are an option for this bed, but so is spring wheat. That could be followed by cowpeas (or another legume), then buckwheat before it is time to plant the winter rye. In my area rye can go in anytime in October. Plant the rye in rows as to make the carrot planting easier. You can see by the rotation arrows that the crops in Bed 1 will rotate to Bed 3 in the next year and conveniently, the rye will be there, right on schedule.

If you have plenty of compost materials from the other beds in your garden you might prefer to plant crops for eating in those green spaces on the map. In that case, salad crops such as sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and bunching onions could be planted after the carrots or kale and collards. Those crops could be followed by snap beans. Bed 2 needs to be open by mid-August, but you have into the fall in Bed 3 leaving the possibility of planting sweet potatoes in late May/early June after the salad crops. Winter squash is a possibility in Bed 3 and you can use the rye straw harvested from Bed 1 as mulch. Potatoes followed by snap beans could happen in either bed.

Of course, the timing of these crops depends on your location. If you enjoy going to the farmers market for fresh vegetables or belong to a summer CSA, but also like to garden, you may want to consider this winter food plan. It might do well for those of you who like to travel in the summer, as long as you are around for the key planting times. You will find other garden maps and plans in my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Once you learn how to plan for the whole year, the possibilities are endless.

I will be talking about all of this on Saturday, January 31, 2015 in the presentation that Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and I are giving at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in Richmond, VA. Come and see us!Homeplace Earth

 

 

 

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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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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 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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potatoes in basket--BLOGVoles, sometimes called meadow mice, really like potatoes. If you’ve grown potatoes for any amount of time at your place, it’s a good chance the voles have discovered them and moved right on in. Before I grew so many cover crops, I mulched everything with leaves. Voles love the cover of mulch, happily going about their business (of eating potatoes) out of the reach of predators. As much as I loved mulching the potatoes with leaves, or anything else, I had to stop that practice.

It turns out that voles also love living among the grain crops. More than a decade ago I gave up the leaves in favor of cover crops. I’ve been doing some great soil building and the voles appreciate every bit, living among the roots of the grains while they’re growing and when the roots are decomposing in the beds. I’ve changed up the preceding cover crop for potatoes, first with Austrian winter peas and now with oilseed radish. The winter peas were wonderful, leaving the bed friable and able to be worked by April 1, pulling out the green pea plants for the compost pile, but I still had vole problems. I was betting on the oilseed radish. After all, it’s a brassicus and potatoes and the cabbage family are supposed to be friends. Voles also love radish and their holes were evident through the winter where they’d feasted. One advantage of that is that I set traps and caught a few before the potatoes went in. 

I figure maybe I’m supposed to have vole problems, so that I can work on balancing that part of the ecosystem and give you some advice. This year I decided to address the vole problem head on. I scoured the Internet for suggestions and came up with a few to try. Adding greensand to the bed should help, said one source. I’m a little short on potash in my garden anyway and so I added greensand to every potato bed. Bury elderberry stems with the potatoes, said another source. Drop in some crushed oyster shells when you plant, urged my friend. Crushed oyster shells are something you can buy by the bag and are often used as a calcium supplement to feed to chickens. I planted potatoes six different ways to test all the ideas.

potatoes with vole traps-BLOG

mousetraps are under the plastic pots to trap voles

I already knew that varieties make a difference and that the voles love the yellow fleshed ones more than anything, which is why I had long since given up growing Carolas, my favorite variety.  One year when I did grow Carola potatoes, I also had Butte at one end of the bed. I remember that the voles took out the Carolas and slowed down considerably when they came to the Buttes. My choices for 2012 were Kennebec and Butte. As it turns out, they love Butte more than Kennebec. In my trials, the Kennebec yields were 1.6-2.6 times higher than the Butte yields, with the same planting methods.

Adding elderberry to the plantings interested me, and we have elderberries growing at our place, so that was easy. I put elderberry leaves on top of each potato piece and buried green elderberry stems between the rows. That bed gave me the worst yield of all, resulting in 6.4 lbs/100 ft² for the Buttes and 17.2 lbs/100ft² with the Kennebecs. Remember we make no mistakes, only learning experiences. I learned not to try that again.

potatoes with posts--BLOGOne thing I had an interest in trying is to put a post in each potato spot with a plastic bottle on top to bang around and make vibration. I used old metal posts, the kind used for electric fence, for some of the posts and bamboo for the rest. I cut “wings” in the sides of the plastic bottles and cardboard milk cartons that I put on top of the posts, hoping the “wings” would catch in the wind and vibrate the posts, making conditions uncomfortable for the voles. Even rain should have caused some vibration. I learned that was nothing I need to try again, also. Dealing with the posts and bottles were a lot of bother, anyway. In that bed, I had a row of potatoes down the middle of the bed and I hilled around each one. On one side I set out cabbage when the potatoes were planted. The other side had snap beans, planted after some hilling had been done to the potatoes. Another year I had interplanted potatoes and cabbage and the voles took out the potatoes. Interplanting potatoes and brassicus is officially off my to-do list.

Oyster shells seemed like a logical thing to do, reasoning that voles don’t like the rough surface, but I had tried that before. If it had worked as well as I’d hoped, I’d still be doing it. Besides, my soil didn’t need more calcium. However, my friend said he had good luck with that and urged me to try it again. I did, putting a handful of crushed oyster shells in with each potato piece, then soil, then shells, then topping with soil. Only Buttes were planted in that bed with a yield of 24 lbs/100 ft².  Oyster shells are officially off the list of things to do again, also.

I built a new 4’ x 8’ coldframe this spring. I dug everything out to about 15” and put ½’ hardware cloth in the bottom. Then I built the sides with dry-stacked solid cement blocks, topping that with a wood coldframe, right out of Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. Although I needed it to grow seedlings, I wanted to first try it as a potato planter. I only had Kennebecs in there for a yield of 43 lbs/100 ft².  I still found vole tunnels in this planting. The voles could have crawled in over the top (an edge sticking out from the coldframe all around might have prevented that) or may have gotten through a crack where the cement blocks may have shifted. Still, I had potatoes. Things were looking up.

potatoes in brick planter--BLOGIn one bed, I tried a variety of things. I buried large black plastic pots with the bottoms cut out, each with 2 potatoes;  2’ high circles of ½” hardware cloth dug into the ground about 10”, each with 3 potatoes; and potatoes planted loose in between these barriers. The Butte half of that bed yielded 35 lbs/100 ft² and the Kennebec yield was 71.8 lbs/100 ft².  At the end of that bed I had built a planter, laying hardware cloth on the ground and making a surround 3 bricks high, filling it with soil. Into that I put 4 potatoes. Granted, it was a very small area, but the yield was 98 lbs/100 ft²! After fighting the voles for years, friends of mine had done something similar to grow their sweet potatoes in, with success. I would have thought the voles would just climb over the bricks to get in, but maybe they like to stay close to the ground.  

I usually space my potatoes equidistant, every 12”, but with the vole problems, I thought I might be making it too easy for them to go from one to the other. This year, in one 4’ x 20’ bed I put just two rows of 20 potatoes in each row, hilling each plant separately. The Butte half yielded 18.25 lbs/100 ft² and the Kennebec half gave me 30.25 lbs/100 ft². Comparing the Kennebecs in the hilled rows and the ones in the brick planter, 30 pounds is a lot less than 98 lbs. per 100 ft², but just about the same yield per plant. I could increase the yield in that bed with hilled rows if I interplanted something after the potatoes were hilled for the last time and if I was more aggressive about trapping voles early. The interplanted crop would have to be ready to come out with the potatoes.  

Our daughter, Betsy, Lightfoot Gardening Coach, and I have been exchanging notes on potatoes. This is her second year in a garden that she carved out of a field, double-digging the beds when she started. She had planted oats and oilseed radish in her beds preceding potatoes. Since we had such a mild winter, she had to chop the oats in and let that crop compost in place. She pulled the radishes for the compost pile. In “normal” years, if there is such a thing, those crops would have winter killed. She planted Elba potatoes and in the oats bed, with the potatoes planted intensively with offset spacing, she harvested 107 lbs/100 ft².  In the radish bed she planted two long rows and hilled each row 3 times. Her yield there was 90 lbs/100 ft². Planting it that way, she used only about half the potatoes and came close to the same yield. She also noticed that the hilled Elbas were larger than those planted intensively. She planted Red Norlands in a bed that had oilseed radish over the winter. It was treated the same way as the hilled Elbas. There was lots of vole damage, producing a yield of 50 lbs/100 ft². She had noticed vole damage during the winter in her radish cover crop and had worried about this year’s potato harvest. She did okay, with bushels of potatoes for her larder. 

One good thing about keeping records is that it helps in planning for next year. I will continue working with Kennebec potatoes and will compare them to Betsy’s Elbas. I might grow a radish cover crop and trap the voles through the winter, something I should have worked more on this year. I’m going to be looking at different preceding cover crops and planting in hilled rows with space for possible interplanting on the sides. Although I don’t like to do much cultivation, I think regular cultivation and hilling helps deter the voles. Hoping to develop an ecosystem that makes the voles stay away voluntarily, I’ve been adding daffodils to the perimeters of some beds (have yet to see that as effective) and have added castor plants to the garden. In the end, it will be everything together that determines success—variety, planting and cultivation, soil fertility, weather, etc. Wishing you success in your potato endeavors. Do you have any potato/vole experiences you would like to share?

 

 

 

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