We’ve been so excited to see progress on the property that it never occurred to me that erosion might be a problem. As we sat in the motor home watching the rain on our first overnight excursion at the property, it hit me that we were going to have a BIG erosion problem on our hands if we didn’t do something fast. I’ve read dozens of permaculture books by this point, so you would think I’d know exactly what to do. As it turns out, all of the books talk about ground cover as a green manure crop, to stop erosion and build soil, but none of them really cover the process of how to plant ground cover in detail.
So we’ve got this two-acre patch of exposed dirt… Now what?
I knew that I wanted to plant some dynamic accumulators to draw minerals up and maybe legumes to fix nitrogen. Other than that, I wasn’t really sure what we should be planting as a winter cover crop, how much to plant or even when to cut it to avoid re-seeding in the Spring. Ugh!
I called up a seed company that I learned about on one of the many podcasts to which I subscribe, and it was suggested that I plant oats to stabilize my soil and build organic matter. The guy sounded pretty convincing, and after looking around a little, I realized that Central Seed & Supply in Springville had several varieties of oats, so we loaded up the kids and headed over.
Now I’m a pretty capable guy, but I have to admit that it was a little intimidating to walk up to the group of guys hanging out in the seed warehouse on a lazy Saturday afternoon and start talking shop.
“I need some oats,” I boldly proclaimed.
“What are you trying to do?” asked the gentleman the others referred to as the “Grass Man”.
“Well… Frankly, I have no idea.” -Me
“You huntin’ or farmin’?” – Grass Man
“Farming I guess. I need a cover crop solution for open ground to get me through the Winter and build my soil.” -Me
This is where the conversation got interesting. We began to discuss the different options available, and slowly, we began to understand each other. After a little conversation about dynamic accumulators, nitrogen fixers, intensive gardening and no-till farming, Grass Man realized that I wasn’t a complete imbecile. I could tell that I wasn’t the typical customer, and this guy was genuinely excited to see someone trying to understand things at a deeper level. We talked about the different types of fast-growing cover, and then we worked out what would be the best on paper, and he came up with a simple custom seed mix to get me started. A few minutes later we were on our way home with 50lbs. of annual gulf rye grass for the home site and driveway and a 25lb. bag of magic beans for the garden.
What We Planted
The mix was just enough for my one-acre field and contained 18lbs. of crimson clover and 7lbs. of daikon radish. The process of planting was very easy. I used a hand spreader and walked the area with the spreader set on a medium setting. I continued to cover an area of known size until all of the seed was used up. Part of the reason I was so doubtful that the seeds would sprout was that I did nothing to prepare the area. We didn’t till or harrow or anything. I simply spread the seed on the open soil, and it grew!
The clover is a leguminous nitrogen-fixer. Nitrogen fixers have the ability to draw nitrogen out of the air and prepare it for other plants to consume and make great green manure crops, which is ideal for nitrogen-poor soils like mine. The SARE organization (sustainable agriculture research & education) suggests that in some studies crimson clover has provided 70-150lbs./acre of nitrogen and 3,500-5,500lbs. of biomass. That’s a lot of nitrogen for the money, and all I have to do is chop it and drop it on the ground when the time comes.
Daikon radish is a dynamic accumulator that sends a taproot, much like a carrot, deep into the soil. It mines minerals and stores nitrogen in the tap root and leaves. When the radish is left in the ground, it rots and deposits the nutrients into the soil for the next crop to consume. Daikon is often referred to as a tillage radish because its taproot loosens the soil (like tilling) and leaves a deep hole that collects rain water and provides passages for worms. When seeded at 10-12lbs. per acre, daikon radish can yield 150-200lbs./acre of nitrogen.
If you’re interested in learning more about which crops make the best ground cover, I recommend this free resource from SARE: Managing Cover Crops Profitably -3rd Edition. There’s a lot of good info in there.
The Early Results
The weekend after we seeded the Ant Farm, we returned to see the progress. In all honesty, I had real doubts about whether the seeds would even germinate. Best case, I was hoping to see some little sprouts here and there. Boy was I surprised!
After just five days, the rye had sprouted into little shoots that were about two inches tall. As the sun was setting, there was a green haze across the ground from all of the little sprouts. In the garden there were millions of seed leaves sprouting forth and blanketing the ground. It was exciting to finally see something growing on our little farm.