Feeding the Kitchen Garden Beds: Cover Crops and Compost

I’ve just finished the last big kitchen garden task of the year, planting cover crops in the eight beds that have held summer and storage crops since late spring. It’s a multi-step process that starts with cutting back and hauling away for composting the spent foliage of corn, beans, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, squash, onions and potatoes. The next steps focus on replenishing the soil that supported all this food from spring to now.  They are the most important things I do for the kitchen garden.

Our soil is clay loam that I learned early on needs infusions of organic matter every year to sustain the next year’s crops. The sources of organic matter I’ve settled on are winter cover crops and compost. Without them, clay loam becomes more clay than loam. To avoid this scary fate, every fall I spread the beds with a sprinkling of complete organic fertilizer, lightly work in a 2-3 inch layer of compost and then scatter on seeds of a cover crop and rake them in.

Cover Crop seeding

Cover Crop raking in

In the past, I’ve covered the beds with Reemay to protect the seeds from birds until they germinate and begin growing, but this year I spread a thin layer of the mulch over the bed, recycling the mulch that had kept down weeds and kept in moisture in the beds all summer. I’m hoping this mulch will protect the germinating and growing seeds and will also break down over the winter and provide one more source of organic matter.

Cover Crop mulching

For the past few years the cover crop I’ve used is Merced rye from Osborne’s Seeds in Mt. Vernon. The rye replaces Austrian Field Pea which I used for years until I discovered that it was harboring a population of pea weevils that later feasted on my sugarsnap peas and fava beans. (For more on pea weevils see the entry for April 29, 2014 on Linda Gilkeson’s Gardening Tips ) I’m hoping the rye will break this cycle.

As the Osborne catalog description says: This vigorous winter cereal grain is a great choice for winter cover and soil stabilization. It grows rapidly in cool weather, forming a dense stand with an extensive root system that absorbs unused soil nitrogen and loosens heavy soils while suppressing weeds. It is important to incorporate quickly once mowed, or the stalks will become very woody. Rapid growth in the spring can be controlled by mowing. Sow 90-110 pounds per acre, increase as it gets later in the season or if your seed bed is rough. I follow their advice and mow the rye down with the mulching lawn mower several times from late February through mid-March. Then I’ll cover the beds with black plastic or a tarp and let the cover crop rot down for about a month. I experimented with this step several years ago and was really pleased to find that the rye grass as well as the roots broke down considerably under this cover, leaving friable soil nearly ready for planting.

Planting the cover crop is easy. The challenge is having enough compost to add to all the beds. Despite our efforts, we haven’t been able to make enough compost each year for all our beds. There’s usually enough to use in the fall or in the spring when I plant buckwheat in the beds that have held winter crops, but never enough for both seasons. Fortunately for us, though, there’s a great source of compost right here on Lopez Island. At Midnight’s Farm, David Bill and Faith Van De Putte have been making compost that is a perfect for our garden. Check out the Midnight’s Farm website and be sure to watch the 3-minute video that describes the compost making process.

A couple of weeks ago we stopped by Midnight’s Farm in our small pick-up truck for a yard of sweet-smelling compost that was enough to add to this fall’s eight beds.

Compost David filling truck

A bonus of driving to Midnight’s Farm is getting what David calls his “five-minute tour” of the compost operation, two minutes longer than the website video and just as inspiring.

Compost with David Bill

In fact, a few days later as my husband Scott was chipping up our corn stalks and other summer garden foliage and building our compost bins he imagined just taking all this garden waste to David next year and letting him and his machines do the work. It might be hard to give up making our own compost, but then again, it might not.

This week, the fall rains have begun in earnest, watering down through the layers of mulch, cover crop seeds and compost to the kitchen garden soil, starting the process of rebuilding the soil for next year. The next kitchen garden task won’t be for a few months when seed catalogs start arriving and I begin January by ordering seeds for the year ahead. But for now, the garden is resting and so am I.

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