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Going Undercover!

A field of rye planted in September at Shalom Vegetables, Andrew Curtiss' farm in Shepherd, Michigan.
Andrew Curtiss
Shalom Vegetables
A field of rye planted in September at Shalom Vegetables, Andrew Curtiss' farm in Shepherd, Michigan.

JW: What if you could plant something now that will work all winter to enrich the soil in your garden, so it's ready for next spring? Well, you can do it by planting a cover crop! I'm Judy Wagley, this is “From the Ground Up!” Andrew Curtiss raises beautiful vegetables at Shalom Vegetables in Shepherd, and he's a big fan of cover crops. Thanks for joining me today, Andrew.

AC: It's a pleasure to be here, Judy. Thanks for having me.

JW: Andrew, what is a cover crop?

AC: So a cover crop, in essence, is like a winter jacket in the winter. It's covering your soil, keeping away the harsh sun, the wind and the rain.

JW: Why should we plant them?

AC: Good question. Soil improvement and preservation, and weed suppression are three major things.

JW: And it works all winter long?

AC: Yeah, you plant it in the fall, it begins to grow, and then protects your soil through the winter. And in the spring, if you're planting winter varieties, it'll green up and you can fill it in for a manure or you can crimp it to leave as a weed suppression for summer.

JW: What are these crops? What are the seeds that we should be planting?

AC: Yeah, so good fall cover crops are winter rye, wheat, oats and Austrian winter peas. A mid-summer cover crop would be daikon radishes, crimson clover, hairy vetch, rye, oats, sunhemp, peas, purple-top turnips, and buckwheat.

JW: Wow, that's a lot to choose from. So we just get the seeds at our local garden center and plant them in the fall. Like we would plant any seeds?

AC: Yeah, you're going to plant them. I like to roll them in with a lawn roller or some way to get your seed in good contact with your soil. And they germinate quickly. Most all of those will germinate fairly fast. And they're going to create good rich soil for you.

JW: So they will germinate in the fall to provide that winter jacket.

AC: Yeah, so you're gonna get fall growth out of most of these. And then by mid-November, they will have stopped growing. But you're still going to have that five to six inches of growth on top that's going to be laid over, and it's protecting your soil from the elements. So if you don't have snow--snow is actually great. It acts as a blanket for your soil. But when you don't have snow, you're risking wind erosion-- big in the winter-- the ground will freeze dry and blow that little bit of topsoil away. So having a cover crop is essential.

JW: I really like that idea of a “winter jacket.” Then what happens in the spring?

AC: Yeah, so in the spring, you'll see the rye, the wheat, the winter peas, those will begin to green up quickly before even your lawn grass greens up. And what you're going to want to do is let those grow for a while and then when the soil begins to dry in mid-April, you can incorporate those by disking or tilling. Or if you're going to use them as weed suppression, you're going to let those go till late May, in which case when the seed head-- the seed pod or your wheat gets to what they call “dough stage,” you crimp it and a crimper breaks the stem of the wheat every six inches-- or the rye , and it terminates the crop and then you would plant through the leftover plant.

JW: Andrew, you have a farm-- but for those of us who don't have a farm, and we have maybe a small garden, should we still plant cover crops?

AC: Absolutely. They're essential for your soil, they protect your soil, and they're a great nutrient addition in the spring to your soil if you till them in.

JW: So even for a small area-- plant cover crops. Do we have a deadline?

AC: I would say you're gonna want to plant your cover crops-- the fall crops--- rye and wheat and oats by mid-October—usually shoot for October 15. After that, you're gonna probably risk not getting germination before the ground freezes. And if that happens, they would not grow in the spring.

JW: So we should get out there soon and plant those cover crops!

AC: Yeah, you're gonna want to get after it and get it done before winter.

JW: proving once again that there is always a good reason to get outside and get growing! I'm Judy Wagley, this is “From the Ground Up!” with Andrew Curtiss. Thanks so much for joining me today!

AC: Thank you, Judy.


Judy Wagley is WCMU's midday host, and is the producer of <b><a href="">The Children's Bookshelf</a></b> and <b><a href="">From the Ground Up!</a></b> She guides listeners through their weekdays from 9am to 3pm.<br/>