DEAR NEW FARM:
I am new to organic farming and am in the process of becoming
certified. I planted an acre of vegetables this year and find
that weeds (along with cutworms) are the main difficulty I
am having. I am going to plant next year’s veggies in
a new space and am wondering how the cover crop works. The
area I am planning on planting is now a field, with grasses
and weeds growing. Do I need to till it first then plant my
cover crop? What’s a good choice for cover crops to
plant in the fall in New Jersey that I can till in and use
as green manure? Any help would be greatly appreciated! I
am exhausted from weeding by hand.
Thanks so much,
P.S.—I had asked some questions before about cover
crops and have recently started reading about the no-till
method. I have an organic farm and have a field of grasses
and weeds that I want to plant with veggies next year. I haven’t
been able to find out how to get started with the no till.
(And how do I plant my transplants in the spring?) I do it
all by hand, I don’t have planting or seeding implements,
and I really need an idea of how this works—the simpler
the explanation the better. Please help!
We turned this question over to Matt Ryan, one of our researchers
who has been collaborating with Penn State exploring methods
of organic weed control. Matt is also an avid gardener. Here’s
what he had to say:
“Welcome to the wonderful world of organic farming!
I see from your messages that you are having problems with
weeds (and cutworms) and are interested in cover crops and
no-till farming. As far as cover crops, I would plant hairy
vetch at 30 to 50 pounds an acre. You can get away with
a lower seeding rate if you use a seed drill (a large piece
of equipment pulled behind a tractor), but since you are
doing this all by hand I have suggested a high seeding rate.
It will be very difficult to get a cover crop established
in an area already dominated by weeds and grasses without
tilling or herbicides.My suggestion is to figure out some
way to till the soil (rototiller or plow) as soon as possible.
Then let it sit until the end of August, and then broadcast
plant (sow seed by hand by throwing handfuls of seed onto
the bare soil) the hairy vetch. This cover crop will normally
grow a couple of inches in the fall and then complete its
growth in the spring. Because this cover crop is a legume,
it will provide nitrogen for your vegetables next year.
Sometime around the first or second week of June 2007,
the hairy vetch will be ready to be tilled under. Notice
that I said tilled under. No-till production is extremely
challenging without using herbicides. Some people (including
us here at The Rodale Institute) have been successful with
organic no-till production using large implements to mechanically
kill cover crops so that cash crops can be no-till planted
into the cover crop mulch. However, I cannot yet recommend
that you try this method because it can be challenging and
the proper equipment is important.
No-till agriculture is great, but one of the things that
proponents of conventional no-till agriculture sometimes
forget to tell you about when they discuss the virtues of
not tilling is the extensive use of herbicides that is required
in such systems. That is why I say that tillage can be the
organic farmer’s best friend. You see, tillage is
one of the few tools that organic farmers have to battle
weeds, and weeds can definitely be a problem for organic
growers. The trick is not to till too much, and never till
when the soil is wet. Also, you need to remember to incorporate
lots of cover crops and compost whenever possible to balance
the negative effects from tilling. If you have any questions
about any of this, please feel free to contact me.
Take care and good luck,
DEAR MATT RYAN AND
What a great response. That answered questions I have been
trying to research for weeks. Thanks so much! I Hope you don't
mind explaIning a few more things to me:
At which point would you suggest putting my composted manure
pile into the field?
After the cover crop is tilled in June, would you suggest
plastic weed mat in the rows for around the plants or will
I need to not worry about weeds at that point. I was thinking
black plastic with drip hose under it. Would that work? What
would you suggest I do for in between the rows?
Does the vetch come back, or do I need to seed each year?
If I do, then at what point do I reseed if veggie plants are
still planted in it?
Sorry I have so many questions, but I am trying to wrap my
brain around the entire process and I just am not clear on
a few things. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!!
Thanks so much,
Apply the compost before you plow the field so that it gets
incorporated into the soil.
Black plastic mulch sounds like a good idea, and yes you
should put that down shortly after plowing, before weeds emerge
and get established. As far as between the rows, you could
either cultivate or plant grass and mow it.
Hairy vetch is a winter annual and should not come back
(unless it goes to seed and becomes a weed itself). Thus,
you will need to reseed it annually. However, it will be hard
to get it established if there are vegetables growing in that
area. We normally plow the soil to get our hairy vetch established.
I hope my responses were helpful. I know from experience
that getting started in organic vegetable production can be
extremely challenging. Besides relying on books and the Internet,
some of the best information can come from visiting local
organic farms that are doing the sort of thing that you want
to do. Seeing things first-hand can be a lot more rewarding
than talking about it.
Anyway, good luck and hang in there.
DEAR MATT RYAN AND
That's just the thing. I can't find an organic farm within
an hour of us in South Jersey. This was my first year trying
an organic method as well as my first year selling to local
restaurants, so it was a bit nerve wracking. I know I made
mistakes and I realize some changes I need to make, but it
is hard to get more of a step-by-step method for doing things
when you are really are new to it. Everything I have read
makes assumptions that you know the basics when I've never
used a cover crop. That’s why I love your web site.
It's the best on the Internet!
us with comments, suggestions and questions.