Tag Archives: soil health

Fall Cover Crops & Their Importance

Fall is actually one of the best times for backyard gardeners to work on improving their soil health. Without a lot of effort gardeners can improve the soils through the fall, winter, and early spring for a better gardening season next year through the use of cover crops. Cover crops are not just for large farms and have a variety of benefits.

Benefits

Reduce Erosion

First off, using a winter cover crop is extremely important in resducing erosion. When there’s nothing growing in the soil in fall, winter, and early spring any rain or melt water can erode valuable soil and nutrients and pollute the local water system. Too many nutrients in the lakes, streams, and river can cause algae blooms that can be dangerous to both people and aquatic life.

Add Organic Matter

As cover crops die or are tilled into the soil they add organic matter which is key to soil health! It gives the soil structure, retains moisture, provides habitat and food for beneficial insects and microbes, and adds nutrients to the soil as it slowly breaks down. If not tilled in the pant material also functions as a mulch to continue to suppress weeds, preserve moisture, and reduce ersosion.

Conserve Moisture

In the same way that open soil is vunerable to ersion it’s also vunerable to evaporation.  Cover crops prevent sun and wind from drying out the soil and hold rainwater.

Some Fix Nitrogen

Any cover crop variety that is a legume actually adds nitrogen to the soil as it grows in addition to the nutrients it provides when it dies or is tilled under. Some examples SESE carries will be given below.

Suppress Weeds

Cover crops also help to suppress weeds. Most cover crops are quick growing and vigorous allowing them to outcompete and knock back weeds.

Help Pollinators

Often your fall cover crops will be one of the first plants blooming in the spring, a critical time for pollinators. Planting in the fall gives you and them a jump start. They’re provided a reliable food source early helping you ensure reliable pollination throughout the growing season.

Fall Cover Crop Varieties

Southern Exposure offers a variety of cover crops suitable for fall planting.

Hairy Vetch

Hairy Vetch is both beautiful and useful. Bees and other pollinators love its purple flowers. It’s also a nitrogen fixing legume. Sow August 1st – November 1st.

Hairy Vetch Seed

Austrian Winter Peas

This awesome crop can be grown through the winter in zones 6 and up. It’s nitrogen fixing and edible! Sow August 15th – November 1st.

Austrian Winter Pea Seed

Buckwheat

Buckwheat isn’t really a winter cover crop becuase it’s what is called a “winter-kill crop” meaning that it dies back with the fall frosts. However it’s great for planting in the fall with a mix of clover because it provides clover shade and cool soil until it dies allowing th clover to take off. It can be planted in the spring up until 1 month before the last fall frost.

Buckwheat Seed

Crimson Clover

This nitrogen fixer does best where winter temperatures don’t dip below 10°F. It has longer blooms than traditional red clover. Sow from mid-July through mid-September.

Crimson Clover Seed

Red Clover

Red clover has a lot going for it. It’s well loved by pollinators, fixes nitrogen, is great for weed supression and makes a wonderful, medicinal tea. Sow in spring or fall.

Red Clover Seed

White Dutch Clover

Like the other clovers White Dutch is excellent for nitrogen and supressing weeds. Sow in late winter, spring, late summer, or fall.

White Dutch Clover Seed

Hulless Oats

Hulless Oats make an excellent cover crop for adding a lot of organic material. It should be noted that they will winter kill in areas where the temperature drop below 10°F. Oatstraw stems can be harvested for tea. Sow in later summer for a winter cover crop.

Hulless Oats Seed

Common Winter Rye

While Winter Rye is not nitrogen fixing it’s still an excellent cover crop. It can actually help stabilize excess nitrogen and releases phosphorus and potassium from the soil for plants to use. It’s extensive root system makes it excellent for improving soil structure. It’s also vigorous and great for weed supression, erosion reduction, moisture conservation, and adds tons of organic material to the soil. Sow August 1st – November 15th.

Common Winter Rye Seed

 

Just because the gardening season is coming to a close doesn’t mean there’s not still planting to be done. If you want a healthy productive garden next year it’s definitely worth the effort to plant a cover crop this fall!

11 Free Organic Methods to Add Nutrients to Your Garden

For many, gardening is not only an enjoyable activity but a great way to save some money. Unfortunately if you weren’t raised on a farm or with a large garden it can be difficult to have a successful garden withtout spending loads of money on fertilizer and soil amendments at the garden supply store. Thankfully it is possible to maintain a healthy garden without spending a dime! Try a combination of these methods to increase your soil’s nutrients and reap a better harvest.

Leaf Litter

Leaf litter is great because it can be used to make compost or can be applied straight to the garden as mulch. As a mulch it provides habitat for beneficial insects, blocks weeds, holds in moisture, and slowly breaks down adding nutrients to the soil.

Leaves can be gathered from your yard or woodlands. You may find piles that have collected behind fallen logs or stones after being carried by the wind. In gathering leaves remember to leave some for the natural ecosystem. It’s tempting but don’t strip any area of all it’s leaf litter. Even if you don’t own wooded property you can probably still find free leaves. Many cities and suburbs collect them and you can get bags of them for free, just ask around.

Grass Clippings

If you mow your lawn at all grass cllippings are deifintely worth getting a bagger for. They make great mulch to block out weeds, hold in moisture, and provide a lot of nitrogen. Grass clippings can also be soaked in water to create grass clipping tea. Watering plants with grass clipping tea provides a fast acting nitrogen boost.

Like with leaf litter, some areas may bag their grass clippings for collection and can be picked up for free.

Compost

Compost is surprisingly easy to make right in your backyard. The most important thing to remember when making compost is to have a mix of of “green”  or high in nitrogen material and “brown” or high in carbon material. Examples of “green” material include grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and weeds. “Brown” material includes leaf litter, wood chips, straw, etc. The compost should be turned occasionally and watered to keep it moist as needed.

Compost can also be used to make compost tea the same way grass clipping tea is made. Many people choose to add powdered egg shells to compost tea for an extra boost of calcium.

Some cities and towns now offer free compost made from local plant waste like grass clippings and leaves. If you go this route you may want to have it tested for herbicides.

For more on making compost read, How to Make Compost from Mother Earth News.

Straw

Straw is a choice mulch but can be rather pricey to purchase. Look for bales leftover from Halloween decorations or consider growing a patch of wheat for a double duty crop!

Wood Chips

Wood chips can be used as mulch or can be added to compost piles. Both in compost and as a mulch they offer similar benefits to that of leaf litter but break down more slowly.

Other Plant Material

Any plant material that doesn’t contain weed seeds can be used as fertilizer. Examples include wheat chaff, weeds, corn stalks, etc. These can be applied directly to the garden or composted. Green plant material like freshly pulled weeds can be used in place of grass clipping in grass clipping tea.

Cover Crops 

Cover croping may sound like something for a big farm but it’s actually very easy and effective to implement in a backyard garden. Some cover crops like vetch or clover are legumes and add nitrogen to the soil as they grow. Others like buckwheat add nutrients as they die and rot or are tilled under. Many cover crops come with added benefits like attracting pollinators.

Check out this post by Ira Wallace for more on Cover Crops.

Urine 

It sounds wierd but urine is actually a great fertilizer if you’re not too squeamish. It can we collected and saved up then diluted (10 parts water to one part urine) and used to water plants for a nitrogen boost. Most people or more comfortable using this on fruit trees and shrubs than their annual vegetable crops.

Wood Ashes

If you have a wood stove or backyard campfires wood ashes make a great free garden amendment, addding potassium to the soil. They should be used in moderate amounts as they also act as a liming agent. They raise the soil’s pH making it less acidic. If this is helpful for your soil conditions it’s worth noting that they’re only about 1/3 as effective as commercial lime so you may need a larger amount.

Hugelkultur Beds

If you’re okay with a more involved project you may want to try building a hugelkultur bed for longtime fertility. Hugelkultur beds involve a pile of woody material which breaks down over time providing a long lasting nutrient source.

You can learn more about the benefits of hugelkultur and how to make a hugelkultur bed here

Manure

Manure can come from your own livestock or you may find it free from a local farm. Try checking with places that board horses as they typically don’t use it the way many farms do. If you’re sourcing it from anywhere besides your backyard be sure that the animals haven’t been fed plant material that was grown using herbicides as these can still be in the manure and will kill your garden.

It’s also worth noting that excessive use of manure can cause a phosphorus build-up which pollutes local water sources and can tie up other soil nutrients. This problem doesn’t occur with any plant based fertilizers so manure should be used sparingly.

If you’re unsure of where to start consider having your soil tested. Your local agriculture extension agency will be able to identify what your soil needs and advise you where to begin. Growing good, organic food shouldn’t be expensive. Experimenting with these tried and true methods can help you keep a frugal yet productive garden.

How to Build a Hugelkultur Garden Bed

For those of you who  aren’t familiar, a hugelkutltur bed is a permaculture garden bed that’s designed to provide your garden with a long term source of nutrients, require little watering yet not be subject to water logging, and encourage beneficial insects, fungi, and soil microbes. Hugelkutltur beds feature many layers including a bottom layer of logs or other woody material.

There are several advantages of hugelkultur. First the logs or branches slowly rot allowing for the slow release of nutrients back into the garden bed. For this reason it’s great for gardening in areas with poor soil.

Second it’s a no-till method. Any no-till practices are favored by many permaculturalists and gardeners for a number of reasons. First tilling is time consuming and difficult especially without equipment. Second tilling actually harms and/or kills beneficial insects and soil microbes that normally help plants grow. Tilling essentially flips over layers of soil which is not something that happens in a natural ecosystem. In nature soil is built from the top by simply adding more layers of organic material that slowly break down, exactly like hugelkultur beds.

Third hugelkutltur beds often require less watering than typical garden beds but as they are raised are also less prone to becoming water logged. Hugelkutlur beds are able to hold water well because of the decomposing woody materials that act as a sponge beneath the soil and the presence of mulch on the surface layer. Mulch is key in any garden as it keeps water from evaporating, reduces erosion, and provides habitat for beneficial insects, fungi, and microbes.

Woody Material

The first step to building a hugelkultur bed is to lay down woody materials in the area you want the bed to be. Branches, twigs, and even whole logs can be used.

It is important to note that certain species of wood are not ideal for this project. These include woods that are typically favored as fence posts like black locust and cedar. These woods are slow to rot and won’t provide nutrients as readily. Other species like black walnut use allelopathy, meaning they give off a chemical intended to keep other plants from competing with them for space.  Obviously it’s also best to avoid any would that has been painted or chemically treated.

You’ll want to pack the wood as tightly as possible. For this reason it’s typically easiest to work with a variety of sizes and start with the largest pieces on the bottom. There is no limit on how tall your pile is though many people choose to use at least three feet. Once you’re happy with your pile give this layer a good watering.

Nitrogen Rich Material

The next step is to add a thick layer of nitrogen rich material. This is necessary to help the wood decay and provide your plants with nitrogen. Good materials for this layer include manure, compost, and grass clippings. Once again you’ll want to thoroughly water this layer after adding it.

Soil

Now you can add soil. It doesn’t have to be anything special as the bed will soon be adding plenty of nutrients to it. You can use what you have on hand or purchase garden soil. Another option if you don’t mind the extra work is to dig a couple of inches of soil/sod out before laying your bed and then placing it back on, upside down as the top layer. This layer should also be watered well.

Mulch

The final layer is simply a layer of mulch. Hay, straw, or old leaves are often used. As previously discussed mulch has a variety of important functions including preventing soil erosion, retaining moisture, blocking weeds, and creating beneficial insect, fungi, and microbe habitat.

Planting

Now your bed is finally ready for planting. Simply move a bit of the mulch aside to sow your seeds or transplants. Nearly anything can be planted in a hugelkutltur bed including perennials like strawberries, rhubarb, and asparagus or annuals like potatoes, peppers, and lettuce. Some people even make large ones to plant trees in!

They can be a lot of work up front but hugelkultur beds will provide awesome harvests with relatively little maintenance. There’s so many benefits and they’re relatively simple and cheap (if not free) to construct.

Have you made a hugelkutltur bed? What did you grow in it? Let us know how it went!