Did you know soil is happiest when there's always something growing on its surface?
Cover crops are so simple yet have so many amazing features! From being used as a weed suppression tool to preventing and reducing disease pressure, cover crops are vital to cropping systems for so many reasons.
First of all, did you know a cover crop can almost never have a negative effect on a cropping system? Their only job is to build and benefit soil health in a natural way. Nothing sparks my interest more than improving soil health in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way!
It has always been our goal to use cover crops to feed my plants instead of conventional fertilizers. It creates a healthier environment for the plants and produces higher yields in an organic way.
What is a cover crop?
cov·er crop | noun
A crop grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil.
Why are cover crops so important?
Cover crops act as a barrier between the soil and the atmosphere. They are a huge benefit because they hold the soil in place during the fallow times of year, as well as feed the microbes in the soil that create vital nutrients that plants require to grow. Soil microbes, earthworms and insects are key to plant growth and development.
NOTE: Fallow is leaving a field out of production for a year so, while growing a cover crop, keeping it protected and rebuilding soil nutrients and overall health.
The cover crops roll in all of this is taking the carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil which the microbes feed from. Without cover cropping the soil is more prone to deteriorate with no structure holding it in place, flooding and erosion, and/or being blown away. The first 2 to 3 inches of top soil is some of the most important for growing. Without cover crops farming would be much more risky and difficult.
Here are examples of cover crops that are vital to farming:
This is a cool cover crop that is primarily used in the fall for holding the soil in place to prevent winds from taking it. This crop can germinate and grow in temperatures as low as 33F degrees. It also grows very rapidly giving lots of biomass and has an extensive root system for soil holding power. Winter Rye overwinters meaning it will keep growing in the spring again so it needs to be killed-off. The other benefit of Rye is it can be a forage crop meaning it can be cut for straw right before the rye goes to seed to make bales. This is a great way for farmers to bring in extra revenue while benefiting their fields.
NOTE: Biomass is plant matter. Grass that is produced from Rye and Sorghum cover crops are filled with nutrients that can be put back into the soil.
This cover crop also called Forage Radish or Dicon Radish. This is a fall-seeded Brassica that has a very neat feature. This crop acts as a natural subsoiling tool. It grows a large taproot to breakup soil compaction by creating holes in the soil for water drainage to reduce erosion problems. Tillage Radish winter-kills after a few hard frosts and breaks down by spring.
NOTE: Brassica is the scientific name for cold weather crops, species such as cabbage, broccoli, and radishes.
Peas & Oats
These cover crops work well as companions to optimize soil health. Peas are just a field pea that can be used as forage for animals. They are also a legume crop meaning they collect and store nitrogen so it does not leach or volatilize into the air. Peas can also be harvested and sold to specialty restaurants for salad mixes as well. There are many different benefits to this cover crop. Oats have a shallow root system but grow fast in warm weather and act as great biomass cover for in-between crops. They hold lots of nutrients and act as a great "green manure" crop to incorporate and plant into soon after. Both are winter killed and work well together to serve dual purposes.
NOTE: Volatilization is when nutrients are essentially evaporated into the atmosphere and are no longer taken into the soil for plant growth.
NOTE: Green manure crops are cover crops filled with nutrients that can be incorporated into the soil to feed microbes. They are full of organic matter, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus sources. A pure natural fertilization.
Cover Crop Cocktails
A cover crop cocktail is a mix of 2 to 3 different cover crops that work together in unison. For example, I use a mix of Peas, Oats, and Tillage Radish as a cover for a field that is going to be planted with Asparagus the next year. I use this mix because it will all winter-kill and asparagus has to be planted early. I also use it as weed suppression because of the high amount of biomass. The Peas are an awesome nitrogen source for the new roots going in. The Tillage Radish is to create good drainage and water absorption capacity as well.
This is a low lying crop that does best in cooler seasons. Red Clover is a short-lived perennial used to supply nitrogen. Unlike other legumes, it fixes a lot of nitrogen even in high-nitrogen soils. It has shade tolerance so it can be over-seeded into small grains and incorporated in May of the following year. Since Red Clover seedlings tend to be slow growing, it benefits from a nurse crop. It forms tap roots and is useful for remediation of compacted soils. Red Clover is also good for weed suppression. This crop can be seeded as early as February to March for frost seeding or from April to September depending on what you use it for! Blossoming is something that needs to be controlled in warmer temperatures. Such a small plant with endless benefits!
In the Northeast Mustard is used as a fall-planted cover crop that winter-kills. This crop thrives in cool conditions and can give 100% ground cover. It adds organic matter, breaks up hardpan, and suppresses weeds in the following crop. Soil-borne diseases may be suppressed by natural compounds found in the residue of crops such as mustard, cabbage, radishes. These act as natural defenses to certain soil borne diseases. There are three species of Mustard that behave similarly when sown in the fall. This is a very low maintain cover crop that offers a wide variety of advantages for your soil. It is best seeded between mid July and August. You will want to kill at the flower stage if not winter-killed already to prevent the Mustard from seeding-out and becoming a weed in the field. Great for a natural disease suppressant which is a great organic way of dealing with devastating diseases that are presented every season.
NOTE: Seeding-out is when the plant is it's final reproductive stage where it has matured all the way to produce viable seeds that can be replanted again to continue the life of it's species. At this point all the nutrient from the plant is pushed into the seed and lost. Incorporating this into the soil will create two negative scenarios. One, adding dead biomass that will take longer to breakdown and create a loss of nitrogen in the soil. Remember, nitrogen is used to break down dead matter. And two, you are creating field weeds from all the mature seed.
Sudangrass and Sorghum-sudangrass are midsummer grasses suitable for short 8 to 10 week plantings. These grasses are the most heat and drought-tolerant cover crops typically grown in the Northeast. Sudangrass growth is easier to manage because the stems are narrower. It can be sown earlier than Sorghum-sudangrass, and suppresses weeds better. These crops provide abundant root biomass, which is useful for increasing soil organic matter. Mowing encourages root growth. They suppress Root-knot nematodes and inhibit weed germination if densely sown. These are warm season cover crops that generally can be seeded between June through August.
NOTE: Nemetodes are beneficial and non-beneficial microbial worms that are both pathogens that attack and hurt pants and/or help defend-off other diseases and help with plant development.
I'm glad I was able to share my love of cover crops with you! There are so many varieties each with their own unique benefits. It's an endless opportunity for experimentation. We promise to keep you updated as we try different ones as the seasons progress.
Garlic is a bulb crop that is planted into the ground in late fall to overwinter, then is harvested in mid July of the next year. The reason for this is because garlic requires two months of temperatures below 40F degrees to induce bulbing, which is growth of a new bulb. This process is called a cold treatment. On the farm we plant hard-neck garlic, verses a soft neck garlic.
Garlic seed comes from the years garlic harvest usually if seed is viable and healthy. The very cloves that we eat are the next seasons seed. Every year at harvest we set aside the nicest and largest bulbs for planting. We select bulbs like this because here the size is a very important factor, the bigger the cloves the bigger the bulb we are potentially able to produce in the next season. Bulbs are broken up into the individual cloves right before planting.
The next steps to garlic planting is bed and field prep, just as we would normally do with cover crops. We plow, fertilize and harrow the land to prep the field. Next we use a bed shaper to make a raised bed for planting; this is a new tactic we are trying this year to see if this will improve bulb size, growth and water penetration. We are hoping the end result will be a better quality product when it's time to harvest. The final steps for planting prep is marking out the spacings to plant. We use our plastic transplanter and set up a system of three rows with 6" between seeds. This gives us a good template to have a uniform planting.
Next we plant! One clove facing right side up in each hole, one at a time. We use a soil knife to create a hole, then plant the garlic clove in about an inch into the soil.
After garlic is placed into their holes/slots in the raised beds we go over the top with a rack to brush soil into the garlic holes.
The last and final step in the garlic planting process is to cover the beds with straw. It protects the seed and soil from winds, very cold temperatures (in case the cloves start to sprout), and weed suppression in the spring/summer.
Now we wait until spring to watch the garlic sprout up out of the straw.
Many thanks Trevor and Kaitlyn for your generous help!
Just like everything else in farming garlic has it's own unique process. From when we plant, to when it's out on the farmstand there are a bunch of steps in between. It's so important to know your food and your farmers that we are going to share the process with you!
It all starts in the fall, just about mid-October. We plant one clove 6" inches in between the next, 1' foot apart and in 3 row sections.
The beds are then covered in straw. The straw provides winter insulation and weed management for the following season when it gets warm.
In the spring it pops through the straw. From early spring until about mid-June we cultivate, keeping the beds clear of weeds that would rob the bulbs of its nutrients.
During this time we are also harvesting the scapes. It is the flower and stem that blooms from the garlic bulb. Scapes are a delicacy in the cooking world and are sold, but more importantly, by harvesting those, it provides more nutrients for the plant and in the end produces a bigger bulb.
If you ever see scapes at our stand or at a farmers market, grab some and experiment. Use them just as you would regular garlic, they are really tasty!
From June forward the plant begins to die back. When the greens turn brown we begin to hand pull the stocks them from the soil.
Some farms use broad forks and undercutting machines, but we do it the old fashioned way
When the harvest is complete we brush the soil from the bulb and rack them. We then store them in a cool dry place, it's just like curing. A fan is also setup to blow air through the stocks to speed up the process. They then have to sit for several weeks and dry before we groom them for the farmstand.
After the bulbs have finished curing we cut the stocks down to 1" inch. We also trim the roots and clean the bulb by hand, pulling back 1 to 2 layers of the skin that surrounds the cloves.
And the finished product, beautiful Mount Hood Garlic!
We bet you didn't know how much work goes into all those little bulbs you see on the supermarket shelves everyday :)
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Ever wonder why farmers use black plastic in their fields? We explain here!
Plastic mulch is a product used in a similar way to conventional mulch, to suppress weeds and conserve water in crop production.
Seeds benefit from this method because you can plant earlier in the season. The plastic creates a humidity chamber and helps speed along the germination process.
Under the plastic, drip tape is laid in the center of the raised bed to irrigate the crop. The raised beds helps with irrigation by preventing the seedling's roots from sitting in water.
Because plastic mulching acts as a greenhouse for the soil it generates higher yields and more production.
Weed control is another benefit of plastic mulching, more moisture and nutrients go to the crop, as well as saving time in field maintenance.
After the plastic mulch is laid we use a plastic transplanter. This piece of equipment cuts through plastic into the raised bed and creates a plug for the seeds or seedlings.
It has a center wheel with spikes that can be adjusted for different spaced plugs. It also has a hose that can deliver water and or fertilizer before the plant goes into the plug.
When planting, one person drives the tractor, one person drops the seed or seedling into the plug and the other covers.
Asparagus is a perennial crop that when planted, and maintained properly, can give decades of production. Planting asparagus is not a quick and easy task. It takes years to establish and many hours in the field watching over the tender plants.
Asparagus isn't grown like normal seed or plant put into the ground. They grow from crowns and since they are a perennial crop, they generate growth year after year.
This is how we build our beds...
1. Grow the roots by seed: We decided to grow the roots ourselves instead of purchasing one year old roots already grown. It’s extra work and a lot of care, but it saves money. The only down side is that it adds an extra year to full production time.
2. Digging roots in the spring: If you remember, a few weeks ago, I posted to Instagram, the crew and I digging asparagus roots from a field to be planted. This was done by undercutting under the root system and pulling them up with a rake. It’s was a long, but fun process!
3. Next-up is prepping the field for planting. We did our normal subsoiling, plowing, and bed shaping of the field. The next step is a little out of the ordinary. We trenched rows for the asparagus crowns. It’s very important that asparagus is planted about 8 to 12” deep in the soil. This is accomplished by using a trencher, to dig deep furrows into the soil so we can lay roots into.
4. Planting the crowns: We space them about a foot or so apart, in the trenches, with the crowns facing up.
5. After we have the roots set in the ground they must be covered with about 1 to 2” of top soil. It is very important that you do not cover the roots with all the soil that was trenched-out for it will smother their growth. We mustered-up a new system with the cultivators and tractor to make the job a bit easier and more efficient.
6. Next we will fertilize and monitor pH, asparagus requires a pH of about 6.8 to 7.0.
7. After we receive a development of new asparagus ferns we have to slowly keep filling in the trenches as they grow until we are back up at an even ground level. This also helps with weed control as well.
From this point, the process takes a good 4 years to see full production.
The next time you are enjoying this favorite springtime crop you now know how much TLC goes into the creation of this plant. Please spread the word and thanks for listening!
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Last night I was in the greenhouse transplanting eggplant seedlings from row trays into cell trays. The Classic and Nubia varieties looked great since seeding them!
"The tiny seed knew that in order to grow, it needed to be dropped in the dirt, covered in darkness, and struggle to reach the light." - Sandra King
Because seeds don’t have a 100% germination rate we transplant seedlings into cell trays to ensure we have perfect germination before going into the field. We want to have accurate seedling numbers to plan the field layout. The plants will grow more effectively and can also be monitored more easily.
Seedlings are planted with one root shoot to make it easier when transplanting into the smaller cells. We use a wooden hole punch to make a place to plant seedlings.
Peppers are next on the greenhouse schedule, more behind the scenes to come!
If you want to learn a little more about our tray system and germination, continue on below.
What is seed germination?
When a seed is covered with soil, it can begin germination. Germination is the process of seeds developing into new plants. Environmental conditions must trigger the seed to grow. This is determined by how deep the seed is planted, water availability, and temperature. When moisture is plentiful, the seed fills with water in a process called imbibition. The water activates special proteins, called enzymes, that begin the process of seed growth. First the seed grows a root to access the moisture. Next, the shoots, or growth above ground, begin to appear. The shoot on the surface of the soil will grow leaves, where it will harvest energy from the sun. The leaves continue to grow towards the light source in a process called photomorphogenesis.
With the warm weather things are beginning to speed up around the farm! Working the land makes me so happy and riding the tractor puts a stupid ol' smile on my face :) Yesterday, I started up the Massey Fergusson and subsoiled the field. What, you don't know what subsoiling is? Well let me explain...
"To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves." - Mahatma Gandhi
Subsoiling is the act of breaking-up the compacted layers (pans) of the soil to create better drainage and root growth for the plants.
With constant plowing or tillage of a field, the soil tends to get hard and compacted resulting in more water run off, erosion, and in the end, poor plant development. By using a subsoiler to breakup these hard packed pans (layers) between the top soil and subsoil layers you are creating a better environment for plants to thrive by loosening the actual layers.
A subsoiler is a long shank approximately two feet long that can cut depths up to 20 inches, whereas regular tilling equipment would only go to a max depth of about twelve inches. The subsoiler we use is called a "one shank tooth" and you can see why it's so effective.
We make a complete pass every five to six feet, or tractor tire to tire, back and forth, until the field is complete.
It felt so good to get into the field yesterday! I was getting soil samples ready for testing and it dawned on me that most people don't really know the science behind planting a field. Soil sampling is the first step and this will give you an idea of how it all works. I'll create more posts like this one from time-to-time to give you a better understanding of what we do. Like they say, know your farmer, know your food!
“What you see depends on how you view the world. To most people, this is just dirt. To a farmer, it’s potential.” - Doe Zantamata
Soil sampling is a vital part of farming and the first field work a farmer must do. Samples are collected to see what essential nutrients are in the field such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Along with checking soil pH and organic matter which is essential for plant growth and development.
A six to eight inch core of top soil is enough to get an adequate reading. Five to eight more soil cores are taken per acre to get overall analysis from the field we are testing.
We walk on a diagonal zig-zag throughout the field gathering samples and once all are collected we mix the cores together.
The soil samples should be moist, but more on the dry side, or it will create problems during transport. If the soil is very wet it also could affect the results.
The samples are sent to the UMASS Amherst soil lab where they go through the process of testing for different nutrients and organic matter. Simple tests can be done from home to test pH, but a lab has better equipment and the current tech to dive deeper into the samples and give a better analysis.
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