Q&A

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,
Jennifer Matthews

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!

 

DEAR JENNIFER:

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,
Matt Ryan

 

DEAR MATT RYAN AND NEW FARM:

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,
Jennifer Matthews

 

DEAR JENNIFER:

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.
Matt Ryan

 

DEAR MATT RYAN AND NEW FARM:

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!

Jennifer Matthews


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