Farm Focus: Cover Crops

Most people have disdain towards the weeds that grow in their garden. At Frog Hollow Farm, we not only embrace weeds, but we purposefully plant them to improve what we do. It might sound crazy, but many weeds provide important benefits to our fruit trees and our soil. In the farming world, we refer to these weeds as cover crops.

Back in October, a team of 15 people walked up and down our roads scattering a mixture of cover crop seeds from huge 50 gallon tubs.  The seeds were not incorporated or drilled into the soil as you might see at many farms, but rather just sprinkled on top of the ground. After the seeds were laid, our teams mowed the volunteer cover crop — the cover crop that we don’t purposefully plant, but that chooses to grow there on its own — that was already in our soil. The fresh mow left a soft, light layer of cover over the seeds that had just been scattered. The best news is that the following day, we got a lot of rain, which allowed for great germination or jumpstarting of the process by which a plant grows from a seed. Not incorporating the seeds into the soil was a huge gamble, but the rain combined with the fresh layer of protection from air and sunlight ended up being wildly successful! Walking through the orchard today, you will see the same cover crops that were seeds months ago standing 6 feet tall!

As mentioned before, cover crops are very helpful to our production. By scientifically selecting specific cover crop seeds, you can reap the specific benefits that each crop offers. This year, we were advised to plant barley, crimson clover, wild mustard, purple vetch, peas, bell beans, and oats. Barley has deep roots that penetrate into the soil that can bring up beneficial nutrients like nitrogen and potassium to the surface. Crimson clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and improves the soil health. Wild mustard has strong roots that help to loosen up the soil — something that we always need, especially when it rains. Purple vetch, like the clover, helps to fix nitrogen in the soil and improves the topsoil nutrients as it breaks down quickly.  Peas help to increase the carbon in the soil and fix the nitrogen. Bell beans serve, like mustard, to loosen up soil and increase carbon and nitrogen. Lastly, oats, as with barley, have deep roots that pull nutrients from lower soil layers and make the nutrients available to the top soil. Each cover crop is important to helping get and sustain organic matter in the top soil that can be consumed by microbes. These cover crops are building up the organic matter (carbon) to greatly improve the soil composition.

The next step in our process is to mow these cover crops. We don’t mow to rid our orchard of the weeds, but rather to fully access their benefits. The timing of deciding when to mow is imperative as we want to make sure we maximize the impact of these cover crops. We will be mowing some time in the next ten days as the vetch and peas have set about as much nitrogen as they will set in the soil. We want to mow them now so that the nitrogen modules from the plants will start to decompose into the top layer of the soil. If you wait too long or let the plants dry out, you lose the opportunity to capture all the nitrogen in the green leaves can be put back into the soil. Soil health is beneficial in helping us to fight unwanted fungi, in to make our fruits more nutritious, and much more! We love our weeds and changing the way farmers approach the production of food!

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