If there is one takeaway that I've received from my last year studying Horticulture at Merritt, it is this: Your soil is the most important thing in your garden. Without the life, the microbiology, or the nutrients they provide, your garden won't thrive. Good soil increases everything - water holding capacity, nutrient holding capacity, nutrient availability, and gas exchange.
So our 2018 goal here at Poppy Corners stems right from that knowledge: We will only implement practices that actually improve the soil, and remove any that don't.
Along those lines, I decided to grow a cover crop this past winter in all of my vegetable beds. In most beds, I sowed both heirloom wheat and crimson clover; in a few others (that were housing larger winter crops, like garlic and shallots) just the clover. The reasons for this are scientifically proven. Cover cropping 1) reduces soil compaction, 2) prevents erosion, 3) improves tilth of existing soil, increasing water and air infiltration, 4) uses the nutrients left in the soil from the previous crop, instead of them being washed away by winter rains/snows, 5) increases soil life, 6) covers and shades soil, 7) increases nutrients in soil by either nitrogen fixation or with extensive root systems which bring up nutrients deep in the soil, 8) increases organic matter content in soil, and 9) crowds out weeds. I'd also add another benefit, which I didn't expect at the outset, but that I found was very welcome - 10) they attract beneficial insects. Oh, and how about 11) they increase carbon fixation while growing. I could probably keep going. Keeping a living root in the soil at all times really does nothing but improve that soil.
They can also provide 12) a crop, which is what I intended by sowing the heirloom wheat, but as you all know, that sort of went pear-shaped on me.
I thought about all of this as I cut down my winter cover crops, in order to prepare the beds for spring. Cutting down all the oats and clover was difficult work without a scythe; I had to do it with my hand pruners and it took a lot of (backbreaking) time. Once the crop was removed and stacked, I simply removed the drip line, and added a couple of inches of the rabbit-manure-enhanced compost pile that's been sitting for a month or so. Then I replaced the drip line, and replaced the chopped cover crop, which will begin to degrade into straw.
The soil in these beds is much improved by the growing of these crops. Digging down, there is loose, rich dirt, dark in color, and filled with life.
The beds, when filled with the living cover crop, also teemed with life. It was a delight to find regular visitors that are familiar to me, such as lady beetles and lacewings, both of whom are voracious predators of bad guys like aphids. We also saw hundreds of spiders, and a few creatures that were new to me, or at least not as common:
This shot was taken with my new macro lens, and it works so great, I just can't recommend it enough for close ups of tiny things. This insect is a Snakefly. I have seen these in the garden before, but not enough to get curious enough to look it up. This time I saw so many on the oats that I had to figure out whether it was good or bad. It's VERY good. The adults and larvae both predate on crop pests. There are very few things that eat them, which means they'll stick around for a while and clean up your bad guys. So I was very glad to know that they are living and thriving here.
This insect, the Soldier beetle, was another frequent visitor to the oats. The adults eat aphids and also are good pollinators; the larvae eat grasshoppers and caterpillars. I'm so glad to see these in large numbers in my garden.
The vegetable beds will sit, with their layer of manure and straw, for a month or so, until it's time to plant my tomato and pepper seedlings, as well as melons, cucumbers, beans, and pumpkins. By the time I do this, that soil should be beautifully rich and ready to feed a new crop. I will just move aside the straw, plant my seedlings and seeds, and move the straw back around the plants as mulch. So, here's another benefit - 13) I grew my own organic straw.
One negative of this process is that, since I did not dig up the roots of the cover crops, but instead left them intact to decompose in the soil, some will re-grow. Those clusters will form new shoots and send them upwards. This is already happening in the beds I cut down earlier:
So they will take some further maintenance. But that is a small price to pay for all the good things that these crops provided. Don't you agree?