Summer Cover Cropping in the Garden

Take care of the sIMAG0322oil and it will take care of you. Cover cropping is an easy way to condition the soil whenever a part of your garden is lying fallow. Cover crops protect the soil, build structure to maintain the microbial life within, suppress weeds, add organic matter and keep nutrients from leaching away each time it rains. Some popular summer covers include: buckwheat, sudan grass, sunn hemp, cowpeas, and velvet beans.  Each one has its particular benefits, so choose according to your needs.  (Here is a comprehensive guide to cover crops of the southeast.)

Buckwheat

Buckwheat (photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Some summer covers we’ll be using on LSSI are buckwheat and velvet bean. Buckwheat is a quick-growing cover crop for short sowing windows.  I recently spread some buckwheat seed where I intend to plant sweet potatoes next month.  I cleared the field of winter arugula, but my potato starts were not ready yet. Come June, the buckwheat will have grown shin-high and will be easy to hoe in to make way for my sweet potato seedlings.  You can put buckwheat in for longer, just keep trimming the heads back with some hedge shears or a weed whacker each time it flowers so it won’t reseed itself.  I’ll be seeding buckwheat all season as my earlier spring crops of lettuce and beans quit producing and it’s too hot to plant a second round of snap beans or summer squash.

mucuna_pruriens_flowers

Velvet bean. (photo courtesy of feedipedia.org)

We’ll grow velvet beans in the raised beds that need a break this summer.  Giving the soil regular rest is a sound practice in sustainable soil management.  On LSSI, we rotate our production beds, trying to give each bed or row a rest once a year. Think of cover crops as a living mulch, and velvet beans lay it on heavy. It grows a lot of organic matter, and because it is a legume, it will fix nitrogen into the soil for the next crop. Just chop it in with a hoe and let it sit and break down before sowing the next thing.  Velvet bean is an especially beneficial cover for us because it is known for deterring the detrimental soil pest, the root-knot nematode.  We haven’t grown regular tomatoes in our garden for years because this critter binds to the roots and takes soil nutrients from our plants. Look out for an update next summer, as I plant tomatoes in the beds I treated with velvet beans to see its effectiveness in managing that pest.

eggplant in rye cover 2015

Baby eggplants transplanted into a bed of winter rye

And since, we’re talking ‘maters, I want to share this great cover cropping tip for you to experiment with next spring, but in order to do it, you’ll get started late this fall by scattering rye seed. Our cherry tomato and eggplant beds will be nearly weed-free this summer because I sowed this rye last November and let it grow winter-long in order to plant my nightshades into this spring.  I simply cut the rye at soil level and turned the soil where I wanted to transplant my seedlings.  I turned it a few weeks in advance. That’s important or else they’ll compete with the rye and won’t get a good growing start.  The summer heat will kill the rye and I’ll essentially have grown my mulch in place.

As soil biologist Elaine Ingham reminds, “Nature abhors bare soil.” If you’re going to leave it bare, she’ll put something in there that you will probably call a weed.  Spread cover seed.

Another reminder for the more northerly growers in clay-rich soil: Use daikon radish, AKA nature’s plow, to break up that clay. Sow this fall and let it over-winter and rot in the ground.

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Sweet Potatoes=Greens All Summer Long! (and yams come Fall)

Spring was a whirlwind of activity in the garden. Summer arrives oh-so-quickly in the south, and we need to plant everything in the ground as early as possible before the heat and the bugs set in! Right now we’re seeing the fruits of our hurried labor in the forms of cherry tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and sweet potato greens. The latter is what I’d like to celebrate in this post.

Sweet potatoes are near sure-fire successes in the summer garden.  They’re a southern staple. After the kale and collards have long bolted and gone to seed, they keep providing the table with greens.  Their roots store excellently too, providing nourishment year round.

On a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia a couple summers ago, I came to know their virtues well.  They were my “power bars” throughout the day.  We baked dozens of the last year’s crop at a time, put them in the fridge to easily grab and get reenergized. At dinner, we stir-fried their bountiful leaves with onions and garlic for a tasty side dish.

This Spring, we planted several rows and a couple beds of sweet potatoes on Little St. Simons Island. All of the “seed” came from the potatoes we grew TWO YEARS AGO in the backfield. An attempt was made to grow watermelons in that field last year, but the sweet potatoes left in the ground from the summer before took hold and won out.  When I first arrived in the garden this winter, the first task at hand was to pull all those potatoes out of the ground. And can you believe after carting several crates of them out of the garden last winter, still this spring dozens and dozens of seedlings, called “slips” in the world of tater-growin,’ came peaking up out of the rye cover in that back field!

    These are the sweet potato slips my husband grew for our home garden.
 If you’re going to grow your own slips, just cut the spuds in half and
put them in a tray of water and they’ll start spouting.

All this to demonstrate what a hardy vegetable the sweet potato is and how easy it is to grow.  A city-dwelling friend of mine grew them in her kitchen windowsill solely for their greens. If you’re growing for their spuds, sweet potatoes like well-drained, loose soil and sunshine. You can mound them up in a raised row to give their roots plenty of room to swell.  You can also plant them in raised beds. We did both late last Spring.  I plucked those slips out of the backfield as they were coming up, put them in trays for later-transplanting, and now, they’re sprawling beyond their beds and rows… clipped every week to supply Charles with a substitute for one of his lunch staples, navy bean and kale soup.  Come fall, we’ll dig them out of the ground, to be cured and ready for the baking come Thanksgiving. 

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