Saturday, October 25, 2008

Undercover Farming

When I first visited Serenbe, in December of 2007, most of our fields were incognito, hiding under a winter cover crop and resting until spring. To my untrained eye, however, Serenbe seemed a very small farm, only growing in a few patches here and there on the farm. Once I began working here, in March, I gradually learned to distinguish the covers of vetch, clover, winter peas, and rye from the green grass between beds. This was a critical skill to develop, as grassy lanes function as roads for our tractor and truck, but woe unto you who drives through a covercropped bed. The weight of a tractor or truck will instantly compact our carefully cultivated fields, destroying the light, fluffy tilth that we have teased in the hard Georgia clay with deep-rooted covers, spading, and the addition of organic matter. Over the course of the season, covercropped fields gradually came into production: we mowed the covers, tilled in the dried grains, grasses, and legumes, and dug our hands into the rich soil beneath.

I now approach December from the opposite end, no longer waking our fields up to the fertility of spring, but tucking them in for a long winter's nap. We've spent the past few weeks covercropping with a vengeance, as we didn't want to miss the window of warmth in which our covers will establish themselves before the first frost. We've sown our fields with oats, rye, clover, and vetch, all hardy winter crops. Each cover has different properties, so we vary our covercrop application to the needs of the particular bed. Oats are a good cover for fields which will come into production in the early spring, as oats "winter kill," naturally dying down toward the end of winter. This creates less work for us as we integrate the dead cover back into the soil. Clover provides bee fodder, fixes nitrogen from the air into the soil (it is a legume), and is easy to kill, making it an excellent choice for early spring beds as well. A healthy crop of clover has self sown in the beds and paths of our current brassica field. We're happy to let it thrive, as it grows low enough not to interfere with our broccolis, cabbages, kale, and collards, and it chokes out more noxious weeds.

Whereas clover simply blankets the ground to out compete other weeds, rye has what is called an alleleopathic effect on the soil and actually discourages weeds from growing. Hairy vetch fixes the most nitrogen of our covercrop quartet and adds a great deal of biomass in its many leafy tendrils. It, however, is a total pain to kill, and tends to get wrapped around the tines of our tiller.

To spread our covers on a field before tillage, we use an Earthway brand hand-operated bag seeder, which looks a bit like a cross between a knapsack and a hurdy-gurdy. We adjust the bottom aperture according to the size of the seed we are spreading, before filling the bag with the desired seed. Then, keeping a steady, fairly swift pace, we walk the field in straight lines, turning the crank on the seeder to scatter the seeds. Crocs, for the record, are NOT good shoes for an activity that involves quick-stepping through tall grasses and grains: the first time I covercropped I lost my shoes repeatedly. Once we've seeded the entire field evenly, we till the old plants in along with the new seeds and hope for a rain the next day. If the seeds stay in the ground without being watered in, they are liable to lose viability, or get eaten up by passing bids. The drought that descended on us for most of September set us back in our covercropping, as we had nary a raindrop for almost a month. Finally, we ponied up and bought overhead sprinklers so that we could get our covers up in time. Of course, about a week later, the rains finally came.

1 comment:

233 said...

You are one amazing lady! We are so proud of all of your accomplishments, especially this new one. Your ability to puts on the farm with you through your words is amazing.

Keep up the good work.