One day, I fantasize, I’ll be standing at the top of a hill, saying to an heir, “As far as the eye can see, all this is now yours.” In the reality of now, the only way my property encompasses all that the eye can see is if I take off my glasses, or perhaps look down and squint.
When I do, I see my urban garden as a farm in miniature: Acres upon acres translate into square foot upon square foot, rolling fields equal a little front yard, and the only hill I have to stand on is at the top of the stairs leading down to the sidewalk. I have loved taking inspiration and lessons from farmers tending plots much larger than mine, but one of the questions I often ask myself is this: How does all that translate to something so small?
Take the idea of cover crops. Farmers and larger-scale gardeners have long preached the gospel of planting crops like legumes and grasses to help improve soil nutrition and structure, guard against weeds and protect against erosion. When I spent 2012 at my brother-in-law and sister’s homestead in southern Maine, they were seemingly always scattering seeds of clover, vetch, rye and oats, and I spent many long hours cutting the crops at the base with a scythe and leaving the stalks to act as mulch or “green manure.”
So in late October, when it was time to slow down my 150-square-foot garden for the winter and prepare for the next phase in the spring, I planted garlic in one bed, used floating row covers to protect some fall crops in two others, and scattered cover-crop seeds in the remaining two.
After reading advice in some of my gardening bibles, including “The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast” by Ira Wallace, I chose red clover and hairy vetch, watering them thoroughly in the hopes that they would take hold before the winter cold set in. I had bought a bale of straw to use as mulch on the garlic through the winter, but I only needed a fraction of that amount, so I used some of it on the cover-crop beds, too.
Within a week, things were sprouting, and now both beds have future green manurepoking through the gaps in the straw. In the late spring, I’ll cut and till them under, giving them some time to continue working their magic — in the case of these two, that’s fixing nitrogen in the soil — before planting in those beds.
Gail Taylor, who works three small backyard plots plus two acres in Brookland for her Three Part Harmony Farm, is using white clover to improve the soil in Brookland. “That plot is only 50 percent in production, and all the aisles are seeded in clover,” she told me. “You can walk on it, and it can take foot traffic. Then in three years, I can flip it. I can turn my aisles into my beds.”
A primary benefit of such crops is financial. “It’s a lot cheaper to buy seeds and plant them and grow your own manure, as it were, than pay to haul in manure or compost,” she said. For a front-yard gardener, the benefits aren’t as stark; my little raised beds won’t suffer the same kind of soil erosion that exposed ones on a windswept and rain-battered field would, and compost doesn’t cost all that much when I’m talking about bags, not truckloads. (Besides, I’m making my own in the form of vermicompost.)
Nonetheless, there are other reasons to go this route, even in a tiny garden. “Anything that keeps you connected to the soil is good,” Taylor said, “and maybe you just don’t want to look at brown mulch all winter long. There’s nothing wrong with that.” She suggests that I consider a mix of cover crops next time, getting the benefits of nitrogen-fixing from legumes such as clover and vetch along with the soil-building abilities of a grass such as rye or oats.
Whatever you plant, cover crops can present a challenge: You have to kill them, perhaps an easier job on larger farms that can use big equipment than on a small one. “I’m still trying to learn which cover crops to use, which I have the capacity to take care of from beginning to end, considering I’m doing it all by hand,” Taylor said. “You don’t want to have to go out there with scissors.”
Then again, on a scale as small as mine? Using scissors, while not ideal, doesn’t sound like such a hassle for only two 4-by-4-foot beds. Besides, if the crops get too bushy, I can always ask my brother-in-law to ship me a scythe. I happen to know he has plenty.
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