Cover Crops

Oct. 29, 2010

Organic garden busy while idle with (edible!) cover crops

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

It may be a bit late for folks to plant in the “Jim’s Plot” 4-by-8 plots this year, but cover crops are an important part of organic farming.

Cover crops are plants that return to the soil nitrogen and other nutrients that have been lost in growing food, or that suppress weeds, act as a method to discourage harmful insects or attract beneficial ones.

In organic farming, the soil is precious and we want to constantly be improving it – even in winter.

One easy way, of course, is to keep putting your old compost in it. If you have several plots, like we do at ShooFly Farm, you will want to rotate crops also to break the life cycle of harmful insects and to plant cover crops. For example, this year in our big field we planted Native American heirloom sunflowers (Hopi Mixed from Native Seed S.E.A.R.C.H. and Arikara from Baker Seed) because the bees like them, and for “green manure,” rotating it out from melons, squash and corn.

This year, in addition to planting a fall garden, we planted a mix of seeds as overwinter cover crops in our other beds. Those include vetch, oats and peas (Pleasant Valley Seeds). Also, since armadillos were digging in our fall garden (because drought had made the other ground too hard for them to find food), we tilled two other plots to divert them. In those we planted buckwheat (which pollinators adore) and a cover crop we can eat: Fava beans.

Fava beans (which actually are a type of vetch) are filled with essential nutrients, especially phosphorus, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin A and iron. They are low in sodium and high in fiber and, for women, contain phyto-estrogens that herbalists say ease menopause (along with teas of thistle, black cohosh and red clover blossoms, among others). They are routinely listed as among the top 10 anti-cancer foods, as they contain herein, which has shown to block carcinogens in the digestive tract. And, they can produce a whopping 200-300 pounds per acre of nitrogen!

They can withstand temperatures down to 10 degrees, so they make a great cover crop here in Mississippi.

Reader Feedback: More on worms … Boy, folks really liked last week’s info on worms, worm castings and worm composting.

First, worms produce no noticeable odor. The reason we keep the Can O’ Worms next to the trash can in the kitchen is not because of any odor, but for convenience. When you finish dinner, you can scrape the veggie leftovers into the composter. The worms do the rest.

The composter just looks like a round trash container, completely enclosed. The only odor is if you open it and put your face down into it; then, it smells like moist earth. No flies, no garbage smell, or anything like that. Just “rainforest.” The “tea” that is produced is also odorless. For a Q&A, see: http://www.abundantearth.com/store/canoworms.html.

Regarding worm castings in the garden: For most small gardens, I would recommend the 1-cubic-foot bag and use it as a fertilizer for individual plants. If spread, it’s recommended to be 1-inch deep. But that can get expensive. Rather, try putting a handful at the base of each plant; cover with mulch and water. A little bit goes a long way. Every two months is recommended.

Thinning bok choy seedlings: Just pluck them (and eat them; microgreens are wonderful!), or replant them elsewhere. The difficulty comes in not tearing them or to keep them from getting tangled up. It’s OK if two to three plants are clustered together; they’ll grow just fine.

Fall Salad Recipe

Last week, I put the topping but accidentally left off the “greens” part in one of the recipes. Here’s the full recipe, from my beautiful wife Annette:

Topping: Pour 1 teaspoon of oil into nonstick or iron frying pan, add raw pecans and/or walnuts to cover surface of pan, saute on medium heat a few minutes, stirring constantly, until toasty. Move nuts to one side of the pan, then sprinkle a thin layer of brown or natural sugar into the pan, a dusting of sea salt and whatever spices you like. (Ground ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, chili pepper …) When the sugar melts, stir the nuts into it until coated, then transfer to a plate to cool.

Salad: Fresh lettuce of any kind, arugula, mizuna or baby greens. Thinly sliced apple, a few craisins, thinly sliced cucumber, a grated carrot … whatever you have on hand. Leftover rice is also good in this salad. Top with crumbled goat cheese and then the cooled lightly sugared nuts.

We like a simple olive oil vinaigrette dressing, or one of Newman’s bottled vinaigrettes. If you want to get fancy, toasted hazelnut oil (available at Kroger) makes a delicious dressing with some salt and balsamic vinegar.

Contact Jim Ewing on Twitter @OrganicWriter, or @edibleprayers or Facebook: http://bit.ly/ cuxUdc.

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