Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why Not Cover Crops?

Above and below: Oats photographed on 23 November and sown in mid September as a cover crop

Cover crops seem to be one of those things that are supposed to not simply be a good practice but also a noble and wholesome one; the sort of thing that good "stewards of the land" would always do. But how often do you actually see it done? I almost never see cover crops. There is no shortage of information on the benefits of cover crops, so there is no need to go into that here. This is a blog about the gardening life style, so I am more curious about why such a highly regarded practice seems to be so seldom followed, at least in the home and public gardens I have occasion to see. Perhaps there is rarely the sense that a particular garden is open and unused for the necessary four or more weeks at the end of the growing season before cold weather shuts down the cover crop’s growth. Here at Kingwood, for example, after the annuals are removed from the seasonal display beds we typically plant tulips, alliums, or pansies in the fall. Home vegetable gardens are likely candidates, but perhaps people don’t like the idea of buying seed for something they are not going to harvest. I have typically mulched my open vegetable gardens for the winter, but cover crops might be better weed suppressants, less time consuming, and less expensive while still providing a boost to organic matter. I think cover crops are sufficiently rare that most people are reluctant to try something so unfamiliar.

I have to admit, until this fall when I planted the oats pictured above, I had very minimal first-hand experience with cover crops. This planting is sort of an anomaly. The beds had been planted in bearded iris, but to reduce maintenance we removed the iris and plan to direct sow annuals in the spring. Rather than let the soil sit empty and uncovered for the winter I planted the oats. I am gratified by the results so far and will look for more opportunities to use cover crops, especially in the vegetable garden.

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