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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