My latest big thing is cover crops. In the past I was a fair weather gardener and once I got tired of zucchini or picking tomatoes became a hassle I would just stop gardening and walk away. Although to give myself a bit of credit here the crops had entered the end of season manky stage where they were lacking the same degree of quality of new season ones. And besides it was a bit cold and rainy so I just didn’t go out into the garden any more. Come spring I would invariably run over rakes and hoes lying in the long grass when trying to whip the garden into shape for the spring.
I’ve come a long way since then. Gardening has seeped into my being. On asked “What are you Sarah?” I would most definitely have to answer “A gardener.” I feel the need to do something garden related every day and when too much time passes by without the ability to absorb myself in the pleasures of the soil, I start to lose the plot a little. I’m more centred and grounded when I’m gardening.
So as an obsessive compulsive gardener, I have taken full advantage of the end of the season to get a head start on the next one. Initially this was borne out of the frenzied panic that rolled around each spring as I tried to get my garden ready and in tip top condition in time for the occupants of the greenhouse to move in before becoming leggy or root bound. The first logical plan for me was to spend the entire winter weeding. It was fabulous, I was out there with my gloves on pulling weeds I couldn’t feel with my frozen fingers. And come spring. I was ready.
But a gardener is always learning and so when cover crops suddenly appeared in every video, magazine, blog, book and billboard, I thought I should give them ago. I’m exaggerating about the billboard, but up until that point I wasn’t aware of them, probably because I’d never noticed them, or thought to notice them – too busy pulling weeds.
So these days I love the idea of soil restoration through cover crops, and relish scattering mustard seeds about where soil needs a bit of TLC thanks to the previous crop being a little manky, or just by nature prone to leaving behind spores of goodness knows what. Or the Lupin seeds into the beds that have had high nitrogen feeders or are about to. I love watching them flourish in the late autumn when everything else seems to be fading away and being pulled out.
But then comes the point just before flowering and I know I don’t have long before they will set seed and become a weed in themselves and so need to come down and be dug in. It is the digging in that fills me with dread. It is not easy. Well not the way I do it. Oh how I long for a shredder. There is just a few weeks of the year when this is considered the most essential item on the planet. And I must have one. But I don’t.
The first time I tried to dig them in I pulled the plants out and laid them on the top as they were and tried with little success to turn them into the soil with the spade. It was hopeless and I ended up with a bed that looked like someone had run over a scarecrow with bits of stalk poking out everywhere.
So the next time I decided to chop them up. But I’d left it a little long, as memories of the previous experience had caused serious procrastination. So the stems had become a little woody, and required pruners to cut into manageable chunks. It took forever and I nursed blisters for weeks. I sprinkled the greenery over the top and tried to dig it into the soil, but every time I turned the soil, the previously dug in leaves rose to the top. It was like herding kittens.
The following crop I was short on time and just left it lying on the surface of the bed and hoped the worms would do the digging. They didn’t. It just went dry and crispy and was prone to blowing away. It didn’t really add the organic matter and structure to the soil like it was supposed to.
So this time I put my back into it. No procrastinating. I got those stalks while they were still green and tender. Which would be about the right time as the flowers were just beginning to show as a possibility. And like some crazed maniac on a frenzied mission I tore up the cover crops into small pieces. No pruners needed and no blisters. It felt good. I was in control of the crop!
But then I had to get it into the ground. I needed a strategy. So I divided the bed into thirds and grabbed my spade. And I dug and dug and dug. I went about half way down the depth of the raised bed and piled all the soil on the other side. Then in the bottom of my trench I laid a third of the torn up cover crop. Then I used the soil from the middle third to bury the leaves and return the soil to the right level, but continued on to dig out the middle section without unearthing what had been covered. And of course repeating again so running through the middle layer of my raised bed is a lovely layer of mustard. It took a lot of effort but it looks nice now.
But surely there has to be an easier way?
Come again soon – I really do think it is time to take down the tomatoes, I’m just kidding myself it’s still tomato season.
Sarah the Gardener : o )