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cover crops

Preparing Your Garden for Spring Planting 

By Beet 2024 03 March


It’s not too early to think about planting a spring garden!  In fact, now is the best time to begin preparing your soil.  After all, plants derive their nutrients from the soil.  Right?! 

So, what to do first?   

Enriching soil via COVER CROPPING is a good start.  Some cover crops draw (fix) nitrogen form the air and deposit it in the soil.  What could be better than free nitrogen?  Cover crops provide biomass as well.  They sustain life in the soil and provide roots for mycorrhizae to attach to.  Cover crops also help protect against soil erosion.  Weeds and other unwanted plants may take hold if one leaves ground bare for any length of time.  Cover crops provide a positive ground cover to help stifle otherwise unwanted plants.  Just simply dig in the cover crop when spring finally arrives.  How about that!  Free nitrogen and biomass for small creatures to feed on.  Some cover crops are even winter hardy, like hairy vetch and Austrian field peas.  Hairy vetch is my go-to favorite because it does what is described above, and also bees and other pollinators love its beautiful purple flowers if one leaves it to grow in the spring.  And seed once, and then harvest the next season’s seeds – how’s that for economy? 

SOIL is the most important part of growing a garden.  It goes without saying that healthy soil needs to be maintained from year to year.  Remember that plants need nutrients and those nutrients come from the soil, so it makes sense that the healthier the soil, the healthier your plants will be.  A HEALTHY SOIL MEANS HEALTHY PLANTS.  And healthy plants mean a healthy you.  

Now, let us talk about NO-TILL gardening, an approach that emulates the natural environment.  Ever see a torn-up, tilled forest floor?  And yet, things grow quite nicely without tilling.  When you walk on a forest floor, the ground feels spongy.  What you are noticing is the decomposition process in action.  Materials are decomposing underneath newer litter that has fallen on the forest floor.  Leaves of all sorts are decaying and providing nutrients to living trees and plants.  What you do in your garden should emulate what happens in nature.  No one is tilling up the forest floor.  The next best thing to using a cover crop to cover bare ground is to use leaves.  Leaves provide compostable materials, feeding the little soil-dwelling critters and nourishing the soil naturally. 

Here’s a new term for you: SOIL HORIZONS.  Think of soil horizons as different layers of soil.  Without going into too much “science”, each horizon supports different life forms.   And these life forms live quite nicely within their horizon and have relationships with the creatures the live above and below them.  When one tills the soil, disturbing the soil horizons, the creatures that call the soil home get all jumbled up.  How would you like to come home one day to a leveled house in a barren landscape with nowhere to go to get dinner?  That’s what tilling the soil does to those tiny creatures who should be our garden friends.   

POOP.  Okay let’s talk about poop.  All those little creatures that call the soil home live, poop and die.  They turn soil into life sustaining material that plants love.  Yup, soil is alive with not just earthworms.  Think ecosystem.  There’s a myriad of life below our feet.  All the little creatures feeding on live and decaying matter just out of sight, below our feet. A tablespoon of healthy soil can contain 10 billion microbes, and countless living creatures.  Gardeners have been involved with this original World Wide Web for a long time – much longer than the Internet has been in existence.    

So, what is the take-away?  Well, it’s really simple.  Emulate nature as closely as possible.  Practice no-till gardening.  Don’t allow the soil to be bare (cover crops or leaves/mulch to the rescue).  When it comes time to plant seeds or seedlings next spring, simply brush aside the ground cover, and plant right through it.  Allow the matter to decay in place to provide nutrients for the soil-dwelling creatures that are mutually beneficial to both you and your plants.