Category Archives: cover crops

Turning a Lawn into More Planting Space

By Julia Frisbie

Posted Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In January 2016, we became homeowners rather than renters for the first time, so naturally, we set out to destroy our newly-purchased lawn.

 

So boring. So unproductive. It had to go. Here’s what we did, and how it turned out!

 

 

 

We decided to use sheet mulch. First, we flattened and peeled the tape off all our moving boxes and laid them out on the lawn as a weed barrier, and watered them so they wouldn’t blow away.

 

 

(We used straw bales for raised beds during our first growing season, because we knew there wouldn’t be time for all this cardboard to break down and let plant roots through before summer. It’s better to start the sheet mulch process in the fall if you have time.)

Then we brought in 17 cubic yards of compost. The ground was wet, and the truck sank into the backyard and almost got stuck. Total disaster. We like to live life on the edge.

17 cubic yards is a lot of mulch. But for the record, you can use this same technique on a smaller scale: you could build the frame of a raised bed directly on top of your grass, line the bottom with cardboard, and then fill it with bagged compost. We used a dump truck load because we essentially wanted to turn the ENTIRE YARD into a raised bed.

Anyway, we spread that stuff all over, laying down more cardboard mulch underneath as we went. Extended family members who had come to see the new house were quickly drafted.

After we ran out of moving boxes, we used wide rolls of extra-thick kraft paper. Sometimes we had to lie down on the paper to keep it from blowing away before the next wheelbarrow load was in place. Large-scale mulching is a team sport.

 

We planted perennials like herbs and blueberry bushes by cutting through the mulch and paper layers and putting their roots directly into what used to be the sod. Because it was the beginning of the growing season, we also transplanted some shallow-rooted annuals like onions and lettuces right on top of the compost. We planted our deep-rooted annuals (like nightshades, squashes, and brassicas) on the straw bales that year, because we knew their roots wouldn’t be able to break through the cardboard and paper layer until after at least one rainy season’s worth of decomposition.

Then, because we didn’t have mulch to spread over the fresh compost, we broadcasted wildflower and clover seed all over the place as a cover crop.

Our cover crop helped build more soil while (mostly) crowding out weeds. The wild birds loved it, and they came and pooped new weed seeds everywhere. Oh well! Still, we had a glorious first summer in the new place, with a few veggies, a lot of flowers, and very little mowing.

 

Our big break came months later when I heard a chainsaw and a chipper in the neighborhood. I literally chased the truck down the street barefoot, begging the arborist to drop his load of chips for us to use. He did– JACKPOT!!!– and our neighbor yelled at us about it, so the first thing we had to do was shovel the entire load (about 10 cubic yards) out of the easement and into the backyard in one evening. We didn’t have time to mow the cover crop first– we didn’t even have any houseguests to recruit. We just laid down a deep layer of arborist chips over everything. There are no pictures, because it was pitch dark by the time we finished. But it was time and energy well-spent. In the short run, it smothered the cover crop, suppressed weeds, and looked nice. In the long run, it composted in place and fed the soil, because arborist chips contain both green material (shredded leaves) and brown material (chipped wood). Five years and three additional truckloads of arborist chips later, this space is still feeding us and the wildlife with glorious abandon!

Why should you mulch your lawn into oblivion, rather than sod cutting, rolling it up, and hauling it away? Because of geology. Our island is what’s left after the rest got scraped away by a giant glacier. We’re pretty short on topsoil. Losing even two inches of organic matter was a price I wasn’t willing to pay– and besides, it composted in place in less than a year. Soil organic matter feeds microbes and absorbs water, cutting down on long-term water needs. And it’s like compounding interest; the longer you do it, the better it gets.

Fall is the ideal time to make new garden beds, but in a pinch, you can pull it off in early spring. As with other gardening topics, there are many good ways to do something, but no single “right way.” That said, here’s what I can recommend because it’s worked for us:

  1. Lay down a compostable cardboard or paper barrier on top of your grass.
  2. Get the barrier all wet.
  3. Dump a bunch of compost on it, and spread it at least 4 inches thick.
  4. Broadcast seeds for a cover crop. American Meadows is a decent source if you want to buy wildflower and clover seeds by the pound rather than the packet.
  5. Make holes in the barrier and plant perennials straight through. Plant shallow-rooted annuals right on top during the first season. Remember to water well, because plant roots probably won’t make it through the cardboard and paper layer until next season.
  6. Cover with at least a four-inch layer of arborist chips no later than the following fall. You can request arborist chips from local companies on getchipdrop.com and they’re FREE!
  7. The next spring, gently rake the arborist chips out of the way and plant your annuals directly into the compost below.
  8. Follow up with additional applications of arborist mulch on an ongoing basis every fall, or whenever things get weedy, or when you need a good workout, or whenever you feel like things are getting too peaceful with the neighbors.

Now, for a few warnings:

DON’T STOMP AROUND IN YOUR NEWLY PURCHASED PILE OF COMPOST BAREFOOT because it might contain silverware. Somehow this happens to us every time, no matter which of the two local suppliers we order compost from. I have a slight preference for Skagit Soils, but no compost you purchase by the dump truck load is going to be perfect.

DON’T PAY FOR FANCY WOOD CHIPS. They’re all brown material, rather than a mix of green and brown, so they won’t compost in place and they won’t be as good for your soil. Just get the free stuff from your local arborists.

DON’T MIX THE ARBORIST CHIPS INTO THE SOIL. That will tie up all the nitrogen, which will starve the plants. Just lay the chips on top like a blanket.

DON’T FREAK OUT WHEN WILD MUSHROOMS POP UP. They mean your soil is happy. They don’t compete with your plants, and they can’t poison you if you don’t eat them. Treat them as honored guests who bring good news and let them live their lives.

THERE WILL BE WEEDS. Why? Because the polyculture you’re creating is more attractive to wild birds than your boring old lawn used to be, and bird poop is full of weed seeds. The time you used to spend mowing, you will now spend weeding. But the more years you spread arborist chips, the easier it gets to pull the weeds, because the soil gets so spongy-soft. I’d rather be down on my hands in the duff than pushing some stinky old mower any day.

 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok

 

The End of Summer

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted September 21, 2020

The End of Summer

After the many days of forest fire smoke, with a lack of wind due to the inversion effect of the heavy haze, it was a relief this past weekend to finally see the sun and feel a small breeze. The extreme fire danger is still present, so one hopes we can get through the fall without any local blazes.

While the weather was on hold, the garden duties kept perking along. The last of the tomatoes needed to be processed or given away, the final cucumbers had to be pickled or made into appetizers, and the cabbage heads, both green and red, made their way into the sauerkraut jars. In June a third of my seed potatoes failed to sprout due to the wet weather, but, to my great relief, the rest of the seed ultimately produced a healthy harvest of Yukon Golds, La Soda Reds, and California Whites. To quickly cover the failed potato ground I planted a few hills of winter squash and pumpkins. By September that bare corner of the garden was filled with the bright oranges of Cinderella’s Coach squash and Sugar Pie pumpkins.

At the other end of the garden, a planting of standard pumpkins is offering similar pre-Halloween bounty, along with a great number of Vegetable Spaghetti squash. As the vines die back, all the members of the extended gourd family need to be moved to a dry, airy space to properly cure prior to storage indoors. It’s going to be a cucurbit winter.

Fall Greens

The early September plantings of Oriental greens, Miner’s lettuce, mustards, turnips and kohlrabi all came through the smoky stasis. As often happens, I seeded the bed a bit too thickly, so the first duty was to carefully thin the seedlings to give them proper spacing. For fall and winter vegetables it is important to leave extra room between the plants; they need to spread out a bit wider to gather the decreased light from the low-angled winter sun. At 45 degrees latitude north, our corner of the Pacific Northwest is halfway to the North Pole, and in winter is far removed from the more sunny south.

I also made a second planting of fall greens two weeks later, just in case there was any problem due to the continually grey days. If we get an extended stretch of warm autumn weather, both patches should do well. If cold weather threatens later on, I can set up small hoop houses of floating row cover to keep off the frost. I prefer row cover to plastic for winter protection, since it provides just enough added heat to protect hardy greens, allows the rain to water the beds, and also softens the harsh winds. Given our recent trend toward warmer but wetter winters, I’m betting that we won’t see any really hard freezes. But just in case, it pays to keep a supply of Agribon or Reemay row cover handy.

Fall Cover Crop

The fall equinox is also a good time to plant a fall cover crop. I prefer annual rye since it’s simple to plant. I find that most cover crop mixes include seeds of widely varying size, from large Alaskan peas to tiny crimson clover, with annual rye in the middle. It’s difficult to plant each seed at its proper depth, often resulting in spotty germination. I cover freshly seeded rye, lightly raked in, with floating row cover for a few weeks, as protection against hungry birds. If you wait to plant rye later in the fall, when the soil is much cooler, the row cover also provides just enough warmth to sprout the seed.

Row cover material is actually plain white interfacing, commonly used in lining down jackets and other clothes. Who knew it could also be used to protect gardens against the cold? A tool of the garment industry has crossed over into horticulture.

Fall Cover Crops

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted August 25, 2020

The first signs of fall usually arrive in late August: cooler nights, early morning fogs, and a few rain showers to break up the steady stream of sunny days. The change in summer weather is an early reminder that mid-September through October is the time to sow a winter cover crop in areas of the garden not occupied by fall greens or overwintering plants. A cover crop lessens soil erosion and runoff, as well as preventing  compaction on bare ground. This is particularly important given the heavier winter rainfall that has been occurring with climate change. We are getting the same amount of rain overall, but it’s arriving in more intense storms. Not the usual Northwest slow drip anymore.

My standard cover crop is annual rye, since it is readily available, fairly inexpensive, and, if protected by row covers, can be sown in chilly conditions in late October and even into early November. (Note: do not use rye grass seed, which is a perennial for lawns.) Annual rye does not supply much nitrogen to the soil, but it develops a strong root system and stays a vibrant green even in the coldest winter weather. It will get lush and thick early in spring so it is important to till it in as soon as the soil has dried out enough to be safely worked. If the rye gets over 6-8 inches tall, mow or cut the tops before tilling or digging in with a fork, to hasten the decomposition of both the roots and the shoots. It usually takes a week to ten days to completely compost a healthy crop of rye into the existing soil. A second tilling may be needed to grind up any lingering root wads or clumps of ryegrass before preparing the beds for planting. The end result is a fluffy soil structure, high in tilth, that is ideal for the first crops of spring.

There are a variety of other cover crops, such as crimson clover, Alaska peas, or fava beans, but they are more expensive. They supply nitrogen to the soil, if needed, but I find the regular addition of compost and organic fertilizer materials is more than enough to keep a year-round garden adequately supplied with nutrients in order to grow healthy plants. To maintain high soil fertility I use worm castings, horse manure tea, or fish fertilizer during the growing seasons. Annual rye does what is most needed during the winter: holding on to the soil during the rain, and then easily dissolving into the ground just prior to the first spring plantings.

I do find that the rye seeds, which are only lightly raked into the soil, need to be protected against the birds, who will quickly descend on any freshly sown plot. There are always a few seeds left exposed on the surface, an instant food signal to every avian in the neighborhood, whether they are winter residents or preparing to migrate south. I immediately cover any new planting of rye, whether a raised bed or a big patch, with a light row cover material such as Reemay or Agribon, lain flat on the ground directly over the seedbed. To secure the material against the wind, I lay boards or heavy metal stakes around the edges, and distribute light metal stakes or wooden poles in the central areas. The white sheets will readily float away in even a light gust if you are not careful. Any revealed bare spots will instantly be targeted by every hungry sparrow.

The rye will sprout under the protection of the row cover, especially in late fall when the nights get chilly. Let the rye push up against the material until the shoots are 1-2 inches tall and are safe from the birds. Once the cover is off, the rye will be a green lawn all winter.

Note: be careful when raking in the rye seed. If you rake back and forth too much you risk piling up the seed in thick patches in some areas and very thin spots in others. To maintain an even distribution of seed, I use more of a vertical chopping movement with the rake, to bury as much of the the seed as possible in place. It avoids mounding up the seed at the edges of the bed or in little ridge lines in the middle of a bigger area. When I sow the seed by hand, casting it evenly all over the bed, it definitely feels like an ancient agricultural rite of fall.