Preparing a field to plant cover crop
The two mains seasons that I plant cover crops are early summer and late fall: after our cold hardy annuals are done blooming and late October after the frost takes out our summer annuals. Its time to flip those beds after the crops are done blooming. More details on the timing of planting below.
After pulling out the spent plants (we pull them out by hand), rolling up the landscape fabric and drip irrigation, we make one pass with our disc harrow using the tractor. This loosens up the soil and makes a nice home for the seed without disturbing it too much. Then the field is ready to spread cover crop seed. I look at the weather forecast and aim to sow seed right before rain is expected. I spread the seed by hand while carrying a 5 gallon bucket. There are certainly fancier, less labor intensive methods of spreading cover crop seed, but this works for us. We farm on a slope and it would be too difficult to use a push-type broadcast spreader on the uphill and we don’t have a fancy broadcaster for behind the tractor (plus we try to minimize the amount we drive the tractor in the fields to lessen compaction), so the old-fashioned way gets it done.
Spring + Fall Cover Cropping
Here is a very simple breakdown of when and what we plant:
June = Buckwheat
After cold hardy spring flowers (like snapdragons, feverfew, dianthus, ranunculus etc.) are done blooming, we prepare the beds using the method described above. Buckwheat is great forage for the bees over the summer and it grows quickly, giving us ample time to have those beds ready for fall-planting. We typically mow down the buckwheat in August and then let it die back for about 1-2 weeks – this timing all depends on weather and how busy we are with other farm tasks. We use our disc harrow to incorporate the buckwheat into the soil and then make the beds smooth with the tiller. Then we lay drip lines and landscape fabric and the beds are ready for planting. Usually this area ends up being planted with cold hardy annuals once again. While there are certainly many other summer cover crops that can be grown, buckwheat is quick and easy and has become my go-to. I always make sure to leave a few fall-prepared beds empty and ready to go so that I am not too stressed for available planting space in the early spring. Unfortunately these beds will not have a cover crop over the winter, but nothing is 100% perfect in farming.
Early November = Austrian Winter Peas and Winter Rye
After the summer annuals have been killed by a hard frost, we prepare the beds using the method described above. Winter peas and rye are a great mix for easy winter cover cropping, though I switch up my mixture a little each year and also use oats, winter wheat, clover and vetch. These crops will grow slowly throughout the winter and then will start to take off during those warm spring days. We usually mow this cover crop in early April so that we can prepare them for planting tender summer annuals.