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Use Cover Crops to Improve Soil

By the esteemed Barbara Pleasant!

Cover Crop Pleasant Crimson Clover Batchelor's Buttons

Colorful companion cover crops such as bachelor’s buttons and crimson clover will not only improve soil, they’ll beautify your garden beds.

Intro! Legume cover crops are more than pretty, they improve your veggie garden soil, a lot! There are informed choices to be made. Cover crops are in the same categories as Living Mulch and Green Manure.

I’m copying the beginning of Barbara’s wonderful post and will link you to the rest. She says…

There are three main ways to improve soil: grow cover crops, mulch the surface with biodegradable mulches, and/or dig in organic soil amendments (such as compost, grass clippings, rotted manure or wood chips). All have their advantages and none should be discounted, but cover cropping is the method least likely to be practiced in home gardens. There is a reason for this: Information on using cover crops is tailored to the needs of farmers who use tractors to make short work of mowing down or turning under cover crops. But when your main tools for taking down plants have wooden handles and you measure your space in feet rather than acres, you need a special set of cover crop plants, and special methods for using them.

How Cover Crops Help

A cover crop is any plant grown for the primary purpose of improving the soil. Since the early 1900s, farmers have used cover crops to restore fertility to worn-out land. In addition to helping bulk up soil with organic matter, cover crops prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and create and cycle soilborne nutrients using the power of the sun. Recent advances in soil biology have revealed two more ways cover crops can improve soil.

Rhizodeposition is a special advantage to working with cover crops. Many plants actually release sugars and other substances through their roots. They are like little solar engines, pumping energy down into the soil. With vigorous cover crop plants, this process goes on much more deeply than you would ever dig — 6 feet for oats and rye! If you are leaving your garden beds bare in winter, you are missing the chance to use cold-hardy crops such as cereal rye or oats to solar-charge your soil. Thanks to this release of sugars, the root tips of many plants host colonies of helpful microorganisms, and as the roots move deeper, the microbes follow.

But so much for scientific talk. If you’ve experimented with cover crops, perhaps you have dug up young fava beans or alfalfa seedlings to marvel at the nitrogen nodules on their roots, or watched a stand of buckwheat go from seed to bloom in four weeks flat. Or how about this one: It’s April and the soil is warming up and drying out. After loosening a clump of fall-sown wheat with a digging fork, you pull up a marvelous mop of fibrous roots and shake out the soil. What crumb! The soil’s structure is nothing short of amazing! These are the moments an organic gardener lives for.

Cover Crop Root Channels for New Plant Roots Bio-drillingBio-drilling is what happens when you use a cover crop’s natural talents to “drill” into compacted subsoil. For example, you might grow oilseed or daikon radishes as a cover crop where their spear-shaped roots will stab deep into tight subsoil. Bio-drilling action also takes place when deeply rooted cover crop plants penetrate subsoil and die. Then, the next crop grown may actually follow the rooting network mapped out by the cover crop. Maryland researchers were able to track this process using special camera equipment (a minirhizotron), which took pictures of the interactions between cover crop (canola) and crop plant (soybean) roots. As the canola’s deep roots decomposed, soybean roots followed the trails they blazed in the subsoil, hand in glove. In addition to reduced physical resistance, the soybean roots probably enjoyed better nutrition and the good company of legions of soil-dwelling microcritters, compliments of the cover crop.

Dozens of plants have special talents as cover crops, and if you live in an extremely hot, cold, wet or dry climate, you should check with your local farm store or state extension service for plant recommendations — especially if you want to use cover crops under high-stress conditions. Also be aware that many cover crop plants can become weedy, so they should almost always be taken down before they set seed.

How to Take Cover Crops Down

Speaking of taking down…  Continue reading!

From here, Barbara talks about how to take the cover crops down, then, which cover crop to use, what time of year to start it in which zone, the pros & cons of each, her experiences, research.

Or, you may not want to take down your cover crop. If you planted a short ground cover type legume, late in the season you may simply want to remove the larger plants, open up spots in the living mulch and put in winter plants! Your cover crop will keep on working as the older plants die naturally and feed your soil.

Two for one and save time and money! If you choose edibles as a cover crop under larger plants, you get living mulch and food! If you choose legumes, they are working at the same time you are growing your large edible plants! I do hope you consider this 100% natural organic method of restoring or improving your soil, improving space you won’t be using right away! You will have less disease, less pests, less amendment expenses. Plant with flower combinations like Crimson clover to make habitat for wild bees/pollinators, and beneficial predatory insects, for simple beauty!

  • Spring and Summer, cover crops also act as living mulch while feeding your soil. Toss seeds around and under bigger plants.
  • In SoCal and southern areas, Fall and Winter, use cover crops as green manure to restore and improve your soil for spring ~ summer planting.

The better your soil, the more handsome your harvests. To your health and happiness!

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The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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Veggies Summer Harvest Bounty

Just getting started in a new garden, or you just love to plant?! Summer plants you can still plant for early fall harvests are early maturing tomatoes, beans (bush beans are faster) and corn. Corn is more disease prone at this time though. Tuck in your year-round fillers, beets, bunch onions, carrots, summer lettuces, winter radish, to keep a colorful and delicious variety for your table. More about harvesting!

ONIONS For the biggest, sweetest harvests, late summer and early fall are the prime times to sow seeds of short- or intermediate-day onions. Fall-sown short- and intermediate-day onions tend to yield more and are larger and sweeter than those seeded or transplanted in early spring.  Onions have stupendous flavor and come in white, yellow, red!

In our hot foothills and further south, watch your melons, big squashes and pumpkins for their best harvest time – when their stem is brown and dry, or they ‘slip’ off the vine. Hold off irrigating melons about a week before they will ripen so their sugars will concentrate. Harvest okra while it is small and tender – bigger is NOT better! Let your winter squash harden. When you can’t push your fingernail in it, it’s ready.

Keep up with harvesting so plants don’t quit producing. As in July, keep up with watering out to that dripline, replenish mulch.

Give your favorite late summer/fall heavy producers you are keeping a good feed to extend their harvests. Eggplants have a large or many fruit, beans put out a ton of beans, tomatoes are big and working hard, peppers can be profuse! They like a tad of chicken manures scratched in, bunny poop and straw (pick up at Animal Shelters), well aged horse manure and compost makes them dance with the faeries in the night time! Fertilizers highest in P, Phosphorus, keeps blooming and fruiting optimum.

  • Peppers specially like a foliar feed of non-fat powdered milk (Calcium) and Epsom Salts (Magnesium & Sulfur). They also can use more Potassium. This time of year kelp meal is good source and releases quickly. If you have predators about, don’t get the kind mixed with stinky fish emulsion.
  • Foliar feed all your plants with a super mixed tea – no manure in teas you will use on leaves you will eat! At the same time, for deeper root feeding, use a spade fork to make holes about your plant. Push it into the soil, wiggle back and forth a bit, then pour the rest of that tasty mixed tea down the holes. Replace the mulch and water well at soil level to the dripline. That will feed at root level too and give the soil organisms something to think about!

Seeds are your last harvest! Allow your healthiest top producers to seed. Each year keep your best! Scatter some about if they would grow successfully now! Or just scatter them about and when it’s the right time, even next spring, they will come up quite well on their own. Store your keepers in a cool dry place for next year’s better than ever plantings. Remember, these seeds are adapted and localized to you! If you are willing, take your extras to a local Seed Bank! While you are there, pick up some of your fall favorites and some new ones to try out! Hold some for your local Seed Swap! Our Santa Barbara area Seed Swap is in January.See more about SeedSaving!  How to Save Tomato Seeds!

After seedsaving, when your plants are done, let them go, compost if pest and disease free, start clearing space for fall soil prep.

Soil Prep! Blue Wheelbarrow of Compost ready to apply with spade fork!
Soil Prep!

August is perfect time to ready your soil for the very first fall plantings, mid August from seed! Do the seed beds first!

Some would consider the ultimate ‘soil prep’ to be installing gopher wire protection. Here we are at the turn of the season, a very good time to do the job. Get a team of friends together and go for it! Appoint a watcher to make sure everyone stays hydrated. Bring gloves, wear sturdy shoes or boots. You may not be able to do the whole area at once, but do what you can. You will be so glad you did! You can do it!

Cover crop soil restoration! You can plant herbs, Calendula, all sorts of things, but a Green Manure mix including lots of legumes and oats does the best. Legumes collect Nitrogen, the number one element plants need the for their growth! They deposit the N on their roots in little nodules. When you turn under the legumes they not only feed your soil with their leaves, but these little nodules! Beans and Peas are legumes. Alway cut off rather than pull out their roots. Leave those roots there to feed your soil! The oats are what we call a dynamic accumulator! That’s terrific because their roots go deep, loosening the soil, creating channels for oxygen and water and soil critters to navigate. They bring nutrients up from deep below. Also, they produce more growth in late fall/early winter than in spring! Perfect for winter crop plantings!

If you have enough area, plant one space entirely with a cover crop. If your area is smaller, each year plant a different section with your cover crop. Some years you can get in two cover crops, especially if you are planting successively for a steady table supply, or if you are doing one area for early planting, saving another for planting bareroots in January.

If you are inclined, always be making compost with clean garden waste, kitchen scraps. Decide where you want to compost, leave the space next to it so you can move your compost back and forth. Or you can move your composter around to enrich the soil there. If composting isn’t for you, buy the best in bags you can! In addition to the basics, we want to see worm castings, mycorrhizae fungi, maybe some peat to loosen clay, add water holding capacity.

Seeds germinate really well and quicker when worm castings are added to your soil along with the compost. Castings also strengthen your plants’ immune systems! Add 25% for best results. Boost up seed beds and where you will be installing transplants. Put a stake where your planting holes will be so you can pay special attention at those points.

Start Seedlings for transplant, or plant seeds right in the ground! 

Get seeds for celery, chard, mustard greens, parsley, peas, winter radish varieties, and Brassicas: cabbage (especially red and savoy types, which resist frost better), brocs, Brussels sprouts, collards, cauliflower, kale babies, kohlrabi, Mizuna, pak choi, radish, rutabaga, turnips. Sow carrots (they do best from seed). Keep the soil moist and shaded until they’re up, and then gradually allow them more sun over a week’s time. Winter plants that get a good start while there is still some heat, will be producing a lot sooner than plants started while it is cooler, and you will have a much earlier crop, plus time for a successive crop! Be sure to leave space to plant additional rounds to keep steady table supply.

If planting from seed is not for you, no time, gone on vacation, of course you can wait and get transplants when the nurseries bring them in. Just know the selection is not as big as buying seeds. Island Seed & Feed has a great seed selection in the Santa Barbara area, and there are marvelous seed companies. Be sure to get seed varieties that are right for your area!

Keep harvesting, do your soil preps, and wait for September or October transplanting. Labor Day weekend is a favorite big planting time for many gardeners, and that’s only a month away now! At that time you can plant both seeds and transplants for two rounds at once, the seeds coming in six weeks after the transplants!

See Super Fall Veggies for help choosing the very best varieties and Fall companion planting! Don’t forget to plan space to commingle your valuable companion plants! They enhance growth, repel pests. Here’s your quick handy list of winter companions:

Cilantro with Broccoli! It makes brocs grow REALLY well, bigger, fuller, greener!
Lettuce among, beside Cabbages to repel cabbage moths
Chives, Coriander, Garlic, Geraniums, Lavender, Mint family (caution – invasive), and onions are said to repel aphids.
Mustard and nasturtium can be planted near more valuable plants as traps for the aphids. A word to the wise, nasturtiums are snail habitat.
Calendula is a trap plant for pests such as aphids, whiteflies, and thrips by exuding a sticky sap that they find more appealing and delicious than nearby crops.
Peas and carrots but NO onion family

Among HOT August days, there are hints of fall. Days are a tad shorter; shadows fall in different places now. For us SoCal gardeners it’s time to design! It’s in our minds, maybe put to paper. What will be new and different this year, what will we try, is there a more productive variety? Will you be adding compost space, or a worm bin? Would you like raised beds this year? How about a greenhouse?! Have you ever planted a green manure cover crop? Will your soil be different? Will you be planting tall indeterminate peas in a cage that shades, or low bush peas? What about greywater systems? Rainwater capture? In the cool of summer evenings think it through….

 


See wonderful July images of Pilgrim Terrace and Rancheria Community Gardens, Santa Barbara CA! Veggies, flowers, gardening tips and info!

See the entire August Newsletter! 
(Sign up for it if you like!) 
AUGUST is the Last of the Great Summer Harvests!
Broccoli, the Queen of the Winter Garden!
Greenhouses – the Six Weeks Advantage!
Other Community Gardens – Zaytuna Farm, Permaculture with Geoff Lawton 

Events! 7th National Heirloom Exposition, 7th Santa Barbara Fermentation Festival, Soil Not Oil Intl Environmental Conference! 13th Intl Permaculture Convergence, India

 


The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

 

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Transplant Roots

I know these are not veggies. What I want you to see is the roots. Healthy, opened out, pointing down, not rootbound. These little guys will get a good start.

Many wouldn’t think how you transplant your veggies would make much difference, but it can! Here are some tips for smoothing and soothing that step in your gardening for your plants’ health and the soonest harvest!

Rather than popping your transplants out of the six pack and stuffing them into the ground unceremoniously, throwing some water at them, 5 minutes and you’re gone, consider enhancing that process! It’s an investment.

Think how big that root ball will get and generously give the planting spots some wholesome nutrients. Remember, also, hungry micro feeder roots grow laterally searching for food, like from naturally decomposing leaves and insects, so make your planting hole a little larger than that – at least out to the dripline of the mature plant! Do as nature would do.

Put your plant fuels right where they will be used, right in that planting hole! Throw in compost, what you estimate to be 5% organic matter by weight, 10% by volume if that area hasn’t had compost added recently. Be sure that is acidic compost for beans, celery and strawberries. Add 3/4 cup or so of chicken manure (or your choice), a good handful of bonemeal, handful of nonfat powdered milk, 25% of worm castings is research approved as optimum, and maybe a little bit of landscape mix from Island Seed & Feed bulk bins. Could put in 1/4 C or less of coffee grounds – go very lightly on them. All that is needed is 1/2%! That’s not a typo! Compost and manures add N (Nitrogen), necessary for growth. Bone meal is high in Phosphorous (for blooming) and takes 6 to 8 weeks before it starts working – perfect timing! It is also high in calcium, which helps prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes. Nonfat powdered milk, also high in calcium, is for immediate uptake, a natural germicide and boosts the immune system. Worm castings have special plant-growth hormones, improve water holding capacity, suppress several diseases and significantly reduce parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealybugs and mites. They are not fertilizer. Coffee grounds help prevent soil diseases.

If the roots of your transplant are jammed up a bit, gently pull down their little legs, spread them out in four directions. Dig your planting hole wide and deep enough that you can make a little cone of soil in the bottom. The longer roots will dangle down around the cone, happy to be in their natural direction, already starting to be able to reach for deeper soil nutrients and moisture.

Some gardeners trim or cut off any extra long roots rather than have them curl and fold. It’s better to dig a deeper hole and leave the roots intact rather than lose time in ‘transplant shock’ recovery. If you do trim the roots, also trim the canopy because now that there is less root, the canopy is too large for them to feed properly. Clearly you can’t do that with a plant like corn.

Transplant Technique Separating Lemon Cucumbers - John KohlerSelecting Transplants to save money! Not everyone wants to plant from seed! Not everyone wants to spend a ton of bucks on transplants either! Ok, so do it John Kohler style! See this video of him separating out ELEVEN lemon cucumbers from one 4″ container he purchased for $1.79 (those were the days, ha, ha) ! I didn’t believe it, but he did it easy! And I’ll bet they all grew! You can use this technique with many plants.

Sprinkle Mycorrhizal fungi right ON the roots of your transplants when you put them in the ground. It increases uptake of nutrients, water, and phosphorus that helps roots and flowers grow and develop. The exception is the Brassica family – for example, won’t work on broccoli, kale, turnips, radish – save your time and money. Ask for it at Island Seed & Feed in Goleta.

If you have a spritz bottle handy, spray the roots and saturate the planting hole with hydrogen peroxide. It gives the little guys a boost of oxygen, uptake of nutrients, kills many disease causing organisms, pests, algae, fungus and spores. H2O2  Important details!

When you install your transplant, add soil in gently and water as you go. Let the wet soil flow into the spaces so your plant has soil contact and it can eat. Especially don’t tamp down the soil with your foot because it may break some roots, slowing your plant’s growth. Compacting your soil presses the oxygen out of the soil and soil needs to breathe. Channels for soil organisms are closed – they can’t get around and closed water channels deprive your plant of deeper moist soil! Leave your soil light and loose!

Be sure where your water will flow. Use trenches, basins/wells, mini berms, to keep it where you want it, where it is needed. For plants like melon or winter squash, put a stake in the center of the basin where the seeds or transplants are, so you can water right where the roots are. As your super healthy plant matures, finding where it starts is often lost among prolific monster foliage. Time to time, restore the basin.

After your transplants are in the ground, give them an Aspirin+ bath! Yup. One Aspirin, 1/2 teaspoon liquid dish soap (surfactant), per gallon of water. While you are at it, add a 1/4 C nonfat powdered milk and Tablespoon of Baking Soda as well. Aspirin, triggers a defense response and stimulates growth! As stated above, powdered milk is a natural germicide and boosts the immune system. Baking Soda makes the leaves alkaline and inhibits fungal spores! Use especially on your young bean plants, all your cucurbits – cukes, zuchs, any mildew prone plant. Use a watering can that has a rose (nozzle) that turns upward to get the undersides of leaves as well as their tops. Especially do this for tomatoes! Sometimes I plant one day, give the new babies their treatment the next, depending on how much time and energy I have, how many plants I need to plant.

Special treatment for Peppers! Rather than in the soil, do foliar sulphur, Epsom Salts! A cheap home remedy that can keep plants greener and bushier, enhance production of healthier fruit later in the season, and potentially help reduce blossom-end rot. You could apply 1 tablespoon of granules around each transplant, but research has shown a foliar spray of a solution of 1 tablespoon Epsom salts + a 1/2 teaspoon of liquid dish soap (the original plain Dawn) per gallon of water at transplanting, first flowering, and fruit set is quite effective! As a foliar spray, Epsom salts can be taken up quickly by plants, otherwise, it is sometimes hard for the plant to get it out of the soil because of calcium competition.

Last, if it is warm weather, if your soil has the wilts/blight fungi, top off the soil around cucumbers and tomatoes with soil feeding mulch. Straw is simple. Apply it 1″ deep, enough to allow some airflow. Mulch keeps tomato leaves from picking up wilts from soil. It keeps cucumbers, winter squash and strawberries up off the ground, less susceptible to insects and rot, keeps fruits clean.

With bigger plants, plant an understory of living mulch! That can be edible plants or a legume cover crop that feeds your soil. Edible plants like lettuce, carrots, beets, are a wise use of space. Legume cover crops save time by feeding your soil while your primary crop is growing! See more on Living Mulch.

Don’t forget to put down an organic snail/slug bait, or you may not have plants the next day. If you live in a bird area, cover your new planties with bird net or row covers or a cloche.

Soon, very soon, put up trellises by beans and cukes, and install sturdy cages for tomatoes and peppers. Going vertical gives you more space to plant, and keeps fruits clean up off the ground, they ripen all the way around, are free of soil diseases and ground crawlies! Convenient picking height too. Eat ’em as you stand there!

Planting Seeds!  Do your soil preparations the same as for transplants! Worm castings are especially good for seeds! Seeds germinate more quickly, seedlings grow faster! If you aren’t putting in your seeds at the same time as you do your soil prep, stake the center of the spots where the seeds will go so when you plant their roots will have maximum opportunities for tasty nutrition! Lay down that snail/slug stuff right when you plant. Cover the area if you have crows or big birds. Seeds are tasty, tiny sprouts are a delicacy. Water gently, set your water wand on the fine mist setting, so your seeds stay where you put them and aren’t uncovered; keep them moist until they are up. When your little ones are up about 3, 4 inches, give them their aspirin+ bath, mulch them, promptly install their trellises and cages.

Mazel tov!

Updated 4.16.18

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Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

 

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