ask-ruth-pictureHi Ruth,

Last fall I was introduced to the idea of cover crops and decided to try it. I had the soil tested in my raised beds and put a cover crop (a combination of oats, rye, hairy vetch, and a pea). A few weeks ago I cut the cover crop and covered the beds with cardboard. I’m not sure what to do from now on. Should I be working the cover crop into the soil at some point and if so what is the best way? I was hoping to plant one bed in mid to late April, and the others a little later. Also, some of the crop is peeking out around the edges, and of course still growing. Should I stuff paper around the edges to block out the light?

Thank you,

Dear Carmen,

Wonderful to hear that you are planting cover crops in your raised beds! That is one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways to improve your soil. As you know, cover crops are sometimes called “green manure”.

Usually the cover crop is cut down in the spring just prior to planting your early crops, or later if you are planting summer crops. You can weed-eat the cover crop (a blade attachment is really handy for this), or mow it down with a lawn mower set to the highest setting. If you are desperate, you could even cut it with scissors ~ if you don’t have other tools and your bed is smallish. After cutting it down, let it lay on the bed to wither for a few days or a week. As it browns up it will be much easier to incorporate into your raised bed since it will have less mass. At that point you could till it into your garden soil, or incorporate it into the soil with a garden fork.

I’m sorry, I have not heard of the cardboard technique, but since rye is one of your covers, it could be causing your frustration. Wait to cut down your rye until it has had an opportunity to form seedheads. Otherwise it will just keep coming back in an effort to do it’s job of setting seed. You can just let the sun do the work of reducing the bulk of the green matter for a few days. After the bulk is reduced, you will want to incorporate your cover crop into the soil in a timely manner, so as not to loose the nutrient value. Alternatively, you could choose to remove the cover crop and put it on your compost pile. Compost it, and then return the amped-up-with-microbes compost back into your raised bed for a kicking boost of micro-organisms.

More: Rye is a good cover crop that can be planted very late into fall, but it is the hardest of the grains to incorporate back into your soil. The bigger it gets, the harder it will be. Oats and barley will often winter-kill. They will prevent soil erosion, add root matter to the ground, and uptake deep nutrients; but they will be much easier to incorporate in spring. Although vetch is a recommended cover crop, be aware that it can become weedy and hard to eliminate. If you plant Austrian winter peas, they have an added benefit ~ you can forage on the delicious new tips, or harvest them to eat in your salads until you cut your cover crop down.

Improving your soil is the whole foundation of organic gardening, ie. “Feed the soil, not the plant.”

Keep it up good work, Carmen!

Gook luck this growing season,

Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Ruth Gonzalez

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She also served on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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