Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops

The number one gardening question I’ve been asked lately by Instagram followers is, What cover crops are you growing? The short answer is buckwheat, crimson clover, and a brassica such as daikon radishes or turnips. The buckwheat will die off with the first frost, the brassica will wither away in the winter, and the crimson clover can be cut down in the spring.

The next question is, Why plant cover crops? Cover crops take up elements from the dirt, air, and rain and use them to nourish microorganisms in the soil. In the process, they prevent topsoil erosion, suppress weeds, and improve the availability of water in the soil. Vegetable garden soil should never be naked.

Look how pretty this cover crop, crimson clover, looks in the spring. The red flowers have the added bonus of attracting pollinators to the garden when there is not much else around to draw them in. This is especially important if you plan to plant peas on Valentine’s Day (Patriot’s Day if you live in the North). You will want pollinators around when the pea plants start to flower. Same goes for strawberries which flower around the same time.

A few weeks ago my husband and I attended the Southeast Biodynamic Regional Conference at Jeff Poppen’s farm in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. (Jeff is the host of Nashville Public Television’s The Barefoot Farmer.) It was a memorable weekend of education, community, and delicious field-to-table-meals. It was the kind of conference where twelve people officially register to attend and 150 show up … and it’s not a problem. The food, prepared by Chef Paulino Solorzano, never quit coming. The pulled pork, made from a pig that was raised on a farm that practiced biodynamic farming was divine. I am almost positive I can get my husband to attend again next year. [My husband just edited this post and mumbled, “Definitely going back.”]

This is a photo of Jeff Poppen, our leader and host, doing Jeff things like inoculating a compost heap with one of the biodynamic preparations he created on his farm. Farmers who practice biodynamic farming do so to bring health to the land and vitality to the food system or as Jeff puts it: to grow food of the highest quality.

Jeff has one of the oldest and largest organic farms in Tennessee. I read that on his website. If you asked Jeff, he would humbly say he “works with Nature instead of being at war with it.”

This is a photo of one of Jeff’s vegetable fields where he grows food for his CSA customers. He does not irrigate, add fertilizers, or use herbicides (“herbicides kill enzymes so biological processes can’t happen”). He also says things like, “insects are nature’s house cleaners and are our teachers — they tell us what issues we need to address in the soil.” The types of weeds that grow in our gardens also tell us about soil deficiencies.

Jeff grows produce that looks like this without irrigation or chemicals.

His soil is so rich and airy, it crumbles in your fingers like pie dough when you first mix the flour and fat together. It is so loose, even his weeds have long, flowing roots.

This is one of Jeff’s fields that have been put to bed for the winter. Guess what is growing? Buckwheat, crimson clover, and daikon radish. Jeff is the one who inspired me to start planting cover crops this fall when he repeatedly said, “your spring and summer crops are made before you ever plant them.” 

My biggest take away from Jeff, the one thing I could start doing in my small backyard farm right away, was to plant cover crops and never leave vegetable beds naked between harvestable crops again. With that in mind, I got busy.

My husband helped me clean up this summer vegetable bed the afternoon we returned home.

We cut the plants down and put them in the compost pile. We left their roots in the ground. We used a broad fork to jiggle the soil so air could get into the ground. Note to readers: my husband is wearing shoes:-)

I mixed clover, buckwheat, and daikon radish seeds and broadcast them in the beds. This is buckwheat. When you use buckwheat as a cover crop during the summer, be sure to cut it back before it goes to seed, unless you want lots of seedlings. I heard a great tip at an Herb Society of Nashville meeting: plant buckwheat between tomato plants. It attracts beneficial insects that eat aphids off of tomato leaves.

Here is an “after” picture of the garden.

This is the garden one week later. The buckwheat seeds sprouted in three days.

Here is a photo from yesterday. So much prettier than naked raised beds. The chickens love it, too.

November 8th: Buckwheat, turnips, clover

November 11th: after first frost

Related Posts
Family Dirt
Morning Rounds in the Garden, April
Eulogy for a Chicken
Winter Floral Arrangements Using Greenery from the Yard
The Volunteer Gardener An episode of Nashville Public Television filmed in my yard

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes

When I was ten, I planted my first packet of seeds in a thin strip of dirt bordering the back of our house. I remember asking my mother what germination meant. In my twenties, my husband and I grew vegetables on the roof and in the window boxes of our first apartment as newlyweds in downtown Boston.

When we bought our first house in Nashville, my husband built me a fenced-in vegetable garden. He used white picket fencing recovered from a neighbor’s backyard. As a transplanted New Englander, I felt so … Southern Living.

For Valentine’s Day, he borrowed a truck and went to a friend’s chicken farm to get me a load of chicken poop. Later, Mary Hance, a columnist for The Tennessean, wrote a story about it for her “Ms. Cheap” column, “Sometimes even chicken manure is a gift of love.” In 2018, re-using scrap wood and hauling in chicken poop is considered PC and falls under the category of “keeping stuff out of the landfill.” Back then, it was known as plain old saving money, and another example of my husband’s mantra for our children, “Be a problem solver, not a problem identifier.”

I thought about all of this as I watched this week’s episode of Volunteer Gardener [episode 2713], an educational gardening show on Nashville Public Television.  It was filmed in my backyard.

My friend, Jeremy Lekich, owner of Nashville Foodscapes was interviewed by the show’s host, Phillipe Chadwick, to talk about growing edible backyard spaces, Jeremy’s specialty. I’ve got to warn you, Jeremy’s passion for edible foodscapes is contagious! He gets booked up in April when folks get the urge to plant. Now is the time to call him to plan and build next year’s vegetable gardening space.

Here is a clip about how figs reproduce. It didn’t make the show but is a great example of how Jeremy inspires people to become curious and productive gardeners.

You will never look at the inside of a fig in the same way.

Thank you to Greta Requierme, producer of Volunteer Gardener, for bringing her crew to visit my garden and to my dear friend, Jeremy, for all the ways he inspires me to grow more food. Here is Jeremy’s mission statement from his website:

“Nashville Foodscapes connects people with their food source by growing food where people live. We achieve this by offering creative food solutions through landscaping. We create custom designs of our clients’ yards, homes, and living spaces allowing food to be grown in a way that pleases the eyes and taste buds: a fusion of aesthetics and function in a landscape.”

Yes, I adore him!

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Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Morning Rounds in the Garden, July

The July edition of Morning Rounds should begin with a feature photo of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes piled high on a platter, the raison d’être of the Italian summer garden. But, there are no tomatoes this year. They have all been devoured by four-legged creatures with long tails. Instead of peaceful, meditative walkabouts in my vegetable gardens each morning, I begin my day with a quick check of catch and release traps. It’s like setting out baited hooks at dusk when we jugfish for catfish and checking them with bated breath the next morning. Only we eat the catfish.

That’s an opossum’s tail!

In past years, this photo of a squirrel eating a green tomato on the railing of the front garden was an anomaly; now it’s the norm. I considered it quaint; now it makes me growl.

This is a telltale sign that a squirrel is eating your garden produce.

The rabbits have a different modus operandi. They eat the leaves and leave the stems. Currently, they are loving on my peanut plants.

On a much happier note, I do welcome this type of wildlife in my garden. It equals POLLINATION which equals fruits and vegetables in the garden.

I’m very thankful for the bees. If it weren’t for their hind legs collecting and depositing yellow pollen grains as they fly from flower to flower looking for nectar, we would not have zucchini, or Patty Pan squashes, or pumpkins, all gourds in the cucurbit family. Vegetables in the cucurbit family have distinct male and female flowers growing on the same plant. The flower on the right is the male and the one on the left is the female. The bees unwittingly connect them.

Beneath the female flower of this Patty Pan squash is an immature fruit. If pollinated, the fruit will grow to maturity. If not, it will wither and die. I call that failure to launch. Blessed be the pollinators, for they will have honey in heaven.

One morning I shot this short video after I saw a bumblebee fly into a pumpkin flower poking through the fence surrounding the compost pile. Wait for it. Oh, the things you can observe in the garden.

 

 

The Front Garden: The Italian Vegetable Garden

Moving onto other vegetables growing in the front garden, there are the swoon-worthy Tri-Color string beans and Fairy Tale eggplants,.

and the sweet peppers.

In the photos below, you’ll see buds, flowers, and small fruit growing on the single stems of eggplants, string beans, and sweet peppers. While bees visit these plants, their male and female reproduction parts are within the same flower and gravity and wind often does the job of spreading the pollen.


Other News

I harvested the soft-neck garlic bulbs at the end of June. The bulb heads are small because they had a short growing season. I planted them in the spring. If they are planted in the fall and allowed to winter over, they should grow much larger bulbs.

Sadly, by mid-July, my raised bed of squash and cucumbers plants became so unruly, due to overcrowding, that I pulled all the plants. Plants need air circulation. They need room to grow. My problem is I have a hard time thinning plants. Lesson learned. I felt so relieved when I finally pulled them. I knew from the beginning I should have thinned the seedlings.

In other good news, the Brown Turkey fig tree is loaded with almost-ripe figs.

The fig tree is at at least twenty feet tall. I planted it in front of a southern-facing brick wall, and it has survived in this spot for over ten years. Every few years, I have to cut it back after we have a super cold winter. While I don’t have an irrigation system, the tree is watered by the steady drip of condensate from our air-conditioner. It remains lush all summer long.

The Muscadine grapes are looking great. I gave them lots of room to grow along a fence.

The Back Garden: Commercial Crops and their Flowers

I am growing a variety of commercial crops for the sheer joy of seeing how they grow.

Cotton

Sugar Cane

Peanuts

Corn

Tobacco (hasn’t flowered, yet)

Indigo (hasn’t flowered, yet)

Soybeans (missed a flowering photo)

Rice (this crop failed)

A morning haul of food. I look at this assortment of vegetables and wait for them to tell me what I should cook for dinner. I love the entire process of growing and cooking vegetables.

For ideas about how to prepare summer vegetables check out vegetable sides and pasta dishes on the blog Menu.

I’ll close with a video of my backyard composters eating their favorite food.

 

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Related Stories
Morning Rounds in the Garden, June
Morning Rounds in the Garden, May
Morning Rounds in the Garden, April
Tomatoes: The Crown Jewels of the Summer Kitchen Garden
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Family Dirt

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Morning Rounds in the Garden, June

A lot can happen in a month.

Here in mid-June in Tennessee, the peas, lettuces, radishes, turnips, spring onions, and spinach have given way to tomatoes, cukes, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, eggplants, beans, basil, and garlic.

Here’s what’s growing in my Italian kitchen garden this month.

Tomato Plants

Tomatoes are the stars of the summer garden. I planted twelve heirloom Cherokee Purples and an assortment of twelve other heirloom varieties.

I use the Florida Weave system of support for growing tomatoes. It requires 6-foot posts and a few layers of string woven in and around the posts; new layers of string are added as the plants grow taller.

A few years ago, I wrote a post on my favorite tomato plants where I described many varieties. Last year, I had a brilliant idea and decided to grow only Cherokee Purples because they were my favorites. So uniform in color, right?

With a single variety, the art part of my heart wasn’t as enthralled as it had been in seasons past.

That’s why this year, I mixed it up and planted an assortment of tomatoes. I’m going for a variety of color and shapes once again.

Zucchini, Summer Squash, and Patty Pans

Every summer, I try to figure out a new way to keep squash vines off the ground so they won’t rot or be devoured by vine borers. This year, I tried using new short cages I found at Home Depot. So far, they are doing the trick. Each cage has 5-6 seedlings planted in it. I meant to thin them out, but I have a hard time thinning because I hate to discard the rejects. Now, the cages are tightly packed with foliage, flowers, and some fruit. It’s a jungle in there. I plan to sow more seeds in the back garden, this time with three plants to a hill, as is recommended on the package.

The plants are just starting to produce.

Cucumbers

I’m afraid I overplanted here, as well.

Eating cucumbers in a salad, making cucumber soup, and making pickles, are my favorite ways to enjoy cucumbers.

I did want to show the little supports I bought online to help attach viney vegetables to a chicken-wire fence. Note the dark green clips. I use them to support peas and beans, too.

Sweet Bell Peppers

I use the same Florida Weave system of support for peppers and eggplants as I do for tomatoes.

Eggplants

My large Black Beauty eggplants went in the ground late and have a ways to go before they flower.

The smaller style of eggplants, Fairy Tale, Hansel, Gretel, and Ichiban, are already producing and will provide eggplants for cooking while I await the larger Black Beauty.

String Beans (Bush Beans)

I planted these in between the lettuce plants and in front of the peas in early May. When I pulled the lettuce and peas, the string beans seedlings took off.

Rainbow Swiss Chard

Truth be told, I enjoy photographing chard more than eating it.

 

Basil

It wouldn’t be an Italian garden without basil. I throw it in almost every pasta dish I cook. There’s plenty to share.

The Back Garden

I’ve pulled the lettuce, radishes, spring onions, and beets.

The last of the spring onions.

We’re still harvesting garlic, kale, potatoes, carrots, and asparagus. Asparagus shoots turn into tall ferns if you don’t harvest them. This is year three for these Jersey Knights.

Commercial or Agricultural Crops

Every year, I plant a few new crops (mostly agricultural) to see how they grow.  I have quite a few stories about commercial farming that I’ve written over the years. You can find them by browsing the Menu. In this next photo, I’ve planted sugar cane and rice (inspired by our trip to India), and peanuts and cotton (inspired by our trip to Como and the Delta in Mississippi).

In another raised bed, inspired by frequent trips to Kentucky, I’m growing: corn, tobacco, and soybeans. Some plants were grown from seed, and some are “roadsydia.”

Finally, there is a fairly robust crop of indigo growing from volunteers from last year’s indigo plants that I picked up at a Farmers Market. I’ve allowed the seedlings to mature so I can try my hand at making indigo dye.

I was playing with an indigo dye purchased at Eastertime, and I’ve been thinking about making a natural indigo dye ever since …

My first blackberry ripened today!

Can’t forget the chickens this morning.

That’s it for this episode of Morning Rounds!

Check out Morning Rounds from April and May.

What do I do with all of these gorgeous vegetables?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.