It was a bittersweet process to mow down the winter cover crops this week, somewhat akin to butchering a chicken, but different. We had planted a variety of cover crops last fall–field peas, hairy vetch, winter rye, crimson clover, annual ryegrass–and rejoiced as they flourished, especially with a rush of growth this spring. Some crops helped to smother out weeds, others “fixed” nitrogen that will be made available to the next crop as they decompose, all prevented erosion and will add organic matter. And as an added benefit, many burst forth into bloom in early May, just in time for Mother’s Day and an early source of food for pollinators.
The appearance of flowers, however, meant that seeds would be developing soon, which would push an intended plant over the edge into the weed category. It was time for them to go. We used a heavy duty string trimmer to cut the cover crops close to the ground. In some sections, we will leave the roots intact and spread landscape fabric directly on top, into which we’ll plant tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Other sections will be tilled in to hasten the decomposition process. The ultimate purpose of cover crops is to feed the soil, not to provide an edible harvest (though I was tempted to let some of the winter rye mature, thinking that it would be fun to make bread from it and do a reenactment of “The Little Red Hen” with my children).
Since most of our growing is focused in the summer, and we have such a limited amount of land, we usually use fall and winter as a time to plant cover crops. There are some that we’ll squeeze into our summer rotations, however–buckwheat, sweet clover, and soybeans. It’s all part of the process of caring for the land, and something I’m still learning about.