Covering it up

It seemed like such a good idea at the end of last season to grow cover crops on the beds as they came empty, with little thought to my spring self.   So what if they add so much value to the soil, to replace lost nutrients, add much needed organic matter and even, it is said, do special jobs like lupin adding extra nitrogen or mustard being a clean up crop.  It is all very well to improve the soil – but I have to dig them in.  And it is hard work.

Lupin cover crop
It is about this stage that lupin cover crops should be chopped down. All I did was admire it and take its photo!

Ideally the digging in should have been done a few weeks ago, before they started to flower, while the stems were still young and tender.  But for reasons previously discussed, I’m running behind schedule and so my cover crops are flowering.  Which puts me under even more pressure to get it done.

Nitrogen fixing nodules on lupin roots
And this is one of the reasons lupin make a great cover crop – Nitrogen fixing nodules on its roots

I managed one bed yesterday and I’m proud of what I have achieved but it has completely exhausted me.  I slept last night for a straight 10 hours.  I must have needed it, or like I suspect, I’m going soft.   The bed I did tackled had lupin in it and previously had my melons in.  This season it will be host to the ever hungry sweetcorn who will be delighted to find their soil has had an extra boost once their roots get down nice and deep.

Blue lupin
As pretty as this blue lupin is, I should have dug it into the ground long before the flowers appeared.

But this whole cover crop thing as taught me a few lessons this winter. Firstly, I didn’t know the lupin cover crop I’ve grown for years has beautiful blue flowers.  I have always diligently chopped them back long before they even show the slightest signs of breaking into bloom.  We have some naturalised lupin growing around the garden with yellow flowers that smell heavenly when in flower, so I’m considering scattering some of the cover crop seeds as a yellow and blue combo up the side of the hill beside the garden would look amazing.

woody cover crop stems
The down side of leaving cover crops too long is the stems get woody and won’t break down in the bed easily. But nothing is wasted – I’ll chuck these in the compost pile where they will help give structural airflow and stop everything going soggy.

The other interesting thing has come from the mustard crops.  It would seem not all of my beds are equal.  The garden beds were filled on a first come first served basis – as I needed it for a crop the bed was filled.  The first row is pretty much pure swamp soil.  But as the garden developed the pile of soil was moved a couple of times because it was in the wrong place.  And with each move, some sand became mixed in.  It couldn’t be helped and then for the last beds, most of the soil had been used so we were scratching around to find patches of it.   It didn’t seem to matter too much – so long as the beds were filled.

Poor mustard cover crop
This is hardly a cover crop to be proud of – it is really quite stunted compared to the another bed.  This was the very last bed to be filled with earth.

It would seem it did matter after all and the mustard cover crop was a good indicator.  One bed was lush, thick and tall while another was short, thin and barely grew taller than the edge of the bed.  Another crop was about halfway between them both in terms of verdant growth.

Good Mustard Cover crop
This cover crop is thick, dense and exactly the kind of thing you want to see – except the flowers. I should have dug it in ages ago.

This is a good lesson into the quality of the soil.  Just by digging them back in to the soil, I’m improving it, but for the poorest bed, it will need extra love, so I’ll lavish it with compost, well rotten manure and other bits and bobs, and as the crops in it grow I will make sure I feed them regularly to ensure they get what they need that may be missing from the soil.  I’ll grow cover crops again next season and really try to build up that soil.

Burying cover crops
The hard part of cover crops is to bury them. All the advice is ‘dig them in’. Which is next to impossible as it is not disimilar to herding kittens. With each forkful dug in the last forkful pops up. I like to remove the soil in sections and add the chopped up material and then bury it back up and let all the action happen deep down in the root zone.

So, cover crops are good for so much more than first thought and I’ll continue to grow them, even if digging them in almost kills me!

Come again soon – there are so many spring things that need doing I don’t know where to start.

Sarah the Gardener  : o)

12 thoughts on “Covering it up

  1. Wonderful planning advice Sarah.
    Keep up the good work.
    It’s getting cooler already in England, 8*C, feeling like 6*at 8am.

  2. I’ve been loving following your garden journey – especially when I realised that you have a blog as well as your magazine section! I’m getting into gardening myself and started a youtube channel to document how it goes, I’ve loved following your journey and it’s made me realise that I need something to look back on to really be able to celebrate all the wins!

  3. Oh well done! I haven’t grown a cover crop in ages. Must say I used to thoroughly enjoy digging them back in .. knowing that I was adding organic material back into the soil. Hey Sarah, the rust is really nailing my poor garlic – what were you doing to try and combat this?

    1. Hi Julie. I have got it as well. But I have to say – I think variety helps because I have two early varieties – Early Pearl and a Purple one (I’ve forgotten it’s name) and then I have the standard Printanor variety. I kept the best bulbs of all three last season. Last season I sowed the earlies in April and the Printanor in June. I got rust towards the end but the earlies had grown well enough to not really be bothered by it, but the Prinator was a disaster as it just wasn’t big enough by the time it hit. This season I popped the Printanor in in April along with the rest and ended up with rust quite early. The thing is the earlies still look good with strong fat stems while the Printanor still looks pathetic. I have sprayed with a fungicide, but also trim the plants regularly to try and stay ahead of the orange spore burst. I’m also giving them a regular liquid feed that also has seaweed in it. So far so good – except the Printanor – won’t be wasting time with that one again. Sorry for the long answer. I hope it helps. Cheers Sarah : o)

      1. You are a gem! I had my own seed from years of growing then a couple of years ago it got hammered. We are organic so I tried sulphur to no avail. I too use seaweed brew as it is meant to change the pH on the leaf .. Anyway, I still have rust underway yet again after a 2 year break from growing it! That’s me with garlic I’m afraid .. as much as I love homegrown, it takes up so much of my time! Cheers Sarah

  4. Are there native lupines there? If not, is there concern that they would naturalize?! They grow wild here, but several of the naturalize weeds started out as cover crops.

    1. No, but it would seem there are two kinds that have naturalised – the pretty colourful ones that are pleasing to tourists which seem to be welcome and the yellow ones which are described as pernicious weeds. I have the yellow ones. : o)

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