Tag Archives: cover crops

What’s a Nitrogen Fixer?

Nitrogen fixing plants have a symbiotic relationship with specific bacteria. The bacteria colonize the plant’s roots and pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere. The bacteria uses the nitrogen and then it becomes available to the plant.

Nitrogen fixing plants include most plants in the legume family. They also include certain grasses like buckwheat but legumes are generally the most efficient. 

Why are they important?

Nitrogen is key for plant growth. Plants require it in order to perform photosynthesis. Yellow or pale leaves can be a sign that your soil lacks sufficient nitrogen. Rotating nitrogen-fixing crops through your garden replenishes nutrients in the soil without resorting to using synthetic fertilizers. 

Many nitrogen fixing crops, like those listed below, are used as cover crops or green manures. Like other cover crops they help prevent moisture loss, reduce erosion, and provide habitat for beneficial insects and fungi all while adding nitrogen to the soil. Using cover crops is in investment in soil health.

Nitrogen Fixing Cover Crops

Other legume crops like beans and peas are also nitrogen fixing. Pole beans are grown in the “Three Sisters” garden technique because they help provide nitrogen for the heavy-feeding corn.

Growing Cover Crops

Nitrogen fixing cover crops can be used in different ways. Biennial or perennial crops like clover are often grown for a season or year and then tillled under. This process adds organic matter to the soil and makes the plants’ nitrogen and other nutrients available to your crops. Alternatively winter-kill or annual crops like Sunn Hemp die back on their own and can be used as mulch. As they decompose they add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. 

These nitrogen fixing crops are also perfect for permanent pathways between rows or beds. Clover pathways in particular can be mowed through the summer. The clippings make excellent mulch for the adjacent beds.  

You can find more individual information under individual variety descriptions. 

 

The Importance of Sustainable Soil Management

Your garden harvest starts with healthy soil. How much produce you get, whether your plants are affected by disease, and even how many pests you have can be affected by how you treat your soil. But how you manage your soil can also affect wildlife and the environment.

Algal Blooms

On this blog, we’ve frequently discussed the importance of mulch and cover crops. They are two simple ways to help prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff. While these effects are obviously bad for your garden they also have more far-reaching consequences. When soil and nutrients erode they contribute to algal blooms in streams, lakes, rivers, and eventually the ocean. 

Algal blooms can be green, red, blue, or brown. They affect both marine and freshwater environments and produce toxins that have a variety of negative effects. The toxins can sicken or kill people and animals, create dead zones in the water, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and hurt industries that depend on clean water. One way we can prevent these algal blooms is to practice good soil management.

Good Soil Practices

Sustainable soil management means using practices that build healthy soil, reduce erosion, and reduce the need for fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. They include:

  • Planting cover crops, especially in the fall to prevent erosion and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
  • Using mulch around plants whenever possible to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, hold moisture, and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  
  • Rotating crops to disrupt disease and pest life cycles and reduce excess nutrients.
  • Reducing soil compaction which helps fungal and insect life in soil thrive. Whenever possible reduce tilling and using equipment. 
  • Providing habitat for beneficial insects like cover crops, mulch, wildflower patches, and insect hotels.

While small gardeners and farmers are not the biggest contributors to this type of pollution every little bit helps. Making these small changes can improve your garden, improve water quality, and help wildlife.

How to Grow Your Own Mulch

I can’t say enough good things about mulch. We have several blog post that mention the importance of mulch but if you want to learn more about why it’s so great check out this post, Mulch Ado… The Best Mulch for Your Garden.

If you’re on board with the importance of mulch but trying save money or make your garden as efficient as possible this is the perfect post for you.

Having a well mulched garden doesn’t have to cost a lot or require a lot of outside inputs to your garden. Don’t let those perfect Pinterest gardens with tons of beautiful, golden straw evenly spread around each plant fool you! Growing some or all of your own mulch is totally feasible and chances you already have some growing without even realizing it.

Use weeds.

As long as you don’t let them go to seed, even weeds make excellent mulch. In what some people call the “chop and drop method” you just go through your garden cutting your weeds and dropping them around plants.

Plant your pathways in a clover.

If you’re using permanent beds you can plant your pathways in a perennial cover crop like clover. Clover will add nitrogen to the soil as it grows plus your pathways can be mowed and used to mulch your beds.

Use your lawn.

You don’t need a hayfield to grow a significant amount of your own mulch. If you mow any lawn area at all you should invest in a bagger for your lawn mower. Grass clippings can immediately be dumped in the garden around plants and are great for adding nitrogen to the soil.

Don’t remove dead material from around perennials.

I’ve said this before but “cleaning up” your garden is not only unnecessary but harmful for your garden. By removing dead plant material you’re removing nutrients and homes for beneficial insects. The only only exception is when you need to remove plant material that you know is home to a pest like if you had a lot of asparagus beetles you’ll want to remove the dead asparagus fronds in the fall.

Plant some cover crops.

Cover crops are not just for large farms or when you’re resting a garden bed. Cover crops like alfalfa and buckwheat are perfect for sneaking in any small available garden space to grow and cut for mulch.

Check out this post for more great ideas, Cover Crops for Great Green Manure, Mulch, and More.

Grow comfrey.

Comfrey is an excellent choice for mulch because of its deep tap root. It brings nutrients and minerals up from deep in the soil and using its leaves as mulch will make these accessible to other plants. It’s also a hardy perennial and will easily tolerate being trimmed back for mulch.

Use any extra plant material you have.

If you think about the plants you grow chances are you’re probably already growing some of your own mulch and are just composting or tilling it in instead. Try thinking of every non-edible plant material as potential mulch. When you pull pea plants off their trellises when they’re finished for the year use them to mulch around your next crop. Did you grow hardneck garlic? Lay down the stalks as mulch after you harvest the bulbs. Even peanut shells can be used for mulch.

Try growing some of your own grains.

Most grains offer mulch as a secondary product. Whether you’re interested in rye, wheat, or rice once you’ve threshed the cereal off the plant you’ll be left with a lot of straw. This straw is perfect mulch. Did you know older grain varieties are much taller than modern varieties partially because straw isn’t valued in modern commercial agriculture?

The importance of mulch in your garden cannot be understated. Whether you’re trying to conserve moisture, add nutrients to the soil, create habitat for beneficials, or just cut back on weeding mulch is an integral part of maintaining a healthy garden. Using these tips you can mulch your garden without spending tons of money or relying solely on outside inputs.

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