Soil: Cover Crops

Cover crops are plants generally sown in fall or late summer, but also sometimes in spring if you’re not using that bit of land for other crops.  Popular cover crops include rye and buckwheat, oats and peas, and clovers.

These low-maintenance crops work in a number of ways to improve soil; first, they prevent soil erosion.  Also, crops like legumes fix nitrogen into the soil, which is important for plants to grow.  Their roots penetrate the soil, helping with aeration.  Cover crops are killed before they go to seed, and then they decompose, leaving lots of organic matter that enriches the soil with nutrients.  All this organic matter also attracts earthworms and other beneficial organisms.

Cover crops should be killed before going to seed,  and 2 to 3 weeks before your plant your vegetables or next crop.  

This past fall, we planted a lot of winter rye, but also some medium red clover, and Austrian winter peas.  (The photo at the bottom shows everything when it was just starting to come up!)   Next year, I think I would like to try buckwheat and maybe a couple other things.

One more benefit of a winter cover crop: it’s sure nice to see some green out there when everything else is brown and dead.

If you’re in Wichita, you can purchase any of these locally at Valley Feed & Seed or Hillside Feed & Seed.  You can also buy online from Baker Creek.

On Treating Our Soil Like Dirt

The more I learn, the less I realize I know…have I mentioned this already?

If you had asked me as a child about the soil, I would have figured it was just some dead, inert substance made for walking on.  Of course, as a child, I don’t think I gave dirt a second thought.  I imagine a lot of people, particularly those who have no interest or cause to investigate, still operate this way.  But as someone who wants to grow things in the ground, I’ve had the incentive to do a little studying (and I mean a little!!)  But I’ve been learning enough to realize just how mistaken I’ve been.

Our soil–healthy soil, anyway–is absolutely bursting with life, nutrients, and all the good stuff that is crucial to growing healthy plants.

For a long time we’ve been tilling our garden to rid it of weeds and keep it “tidy” and because, well, that’s what people do, right?  This year, things will be done differently.  We planted cover crop where we could in the fall, and we’ll till that under soon so that it can begin to decompose in the ground, but after this, we’ll be utilizing mulching and interplanting to grow our crops.

It’s one of those things where, having been enlightened, it all makes perfect sense, and I ask myself why I don’t realize these things sooner.  Instead of feeling bad or embarrassed, I remind myself that we don’t know until we learn, and we’re all still learning.

There are so many things to discuss when it comes to soil health, that I plan on doing a series of posts, so be sure to follow if you’re not already!

The first wave of seeds…

I recently placed an order with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  I don’t know why I bought them so early.  It was just all happening so quickly…but they will keep, so it’s okay!  I will surely be placing another order before winter is through.  It’s inevitable, really…

Included in this batch were: Lucid Gem Tomatoes, Corsican Basil, Purslane, Country Gentleman Sweet Corn,  America Sweet Pea,  Anise Hyssop, Oxheart Carrot, Borage,  Pink Senorita Zinnias, Purple Dragon Carrots, Cupani Original Sweet Pea,  Mazurkia Zinnias,   Siam Queen Thai Basil, Broad Winsor Fava Beans, and two packs of free/surprise seeds: Black Vernisssage Tomato and cabbage (I honestly forgot what kind and don’t have the seeds with me right now!  But I will report on them later…)

UGHH YES #seedhaul #seeds #heirloom #organicgardening @bakercreekseeds

A post shared by Moth & Rust Designs (@moth_and_rust) on

Even though I can’t even remember the name of it, I’m pretty excited that they threw in the cabbage!  I thought about ordering some but doubted I would get around to planting it.  Now I will have to do it!

Are you looking at seed catalogs?  Have you gotten any for next year yet?  What are some of your favorite places to get seeds?

Beautiful and Bittersweet: Working in the Garden in Autumn

Wednesday, we did some more winter prep work, which included expanding our backyard garden space and repotting some plants we wanted to bring inside.  (The cold front moved in just as we were finishing this!)

To make the garden bigger for next year, I spaded up the ground and put a mulch of leaves (because that’s what I had) over it.  I don’t know how effect this will be, but we will also be putting some chicken poo on it soon, as well.

Saturday, we began taking out the peppers, tomatoes, etc., that had been killed by the previous night’s freeze.   The cover crop we planted is looking great (unfortunately, no pics right now.)   We will also spread some chicken manure over the big garden.

Autumn garden work is always bittersweet; while I look forward to the opportunity to rest and recharge, I miss actually growing things.  We meant to set up some cold frames, but didn’t get around to it this year.  I do plan, however, to do lots of reading and research over the winter.  I’m very excited about one particular book on soil that I recently purchased and will share more on that later.  I also have a number of other gardening books in the queue which I’ll try to review once I get around to it.

Do you grow anything through the winter?  Or do you take that time off?  Are you already making big plans for next year?


A meditation on lawns, food, and healthier yards…

What many hold to be a well-maintained lawn can be, in fact, an assault on our environment’s well-being.  Despite the lush green appearance that normally betokens good health, these perfectly manicured yards often result in pollution generated from mowing and trimming, they are doused in harmful herbicides, and the grass becomes dependent on harsh chemical fertilizers that can actually harm the beneficial organisms in the soil.

Please keep in mind, this post isn’t a judgement on anyone.  I myself have a grass-covered yard–albeit unfertilized and quite “weedy.”  I do hope, eventually, to make it into more of a permaculture landscape, but it’s what I have for now, and I’m not faulting anyone for having the same.  But we do need to think about how we’re treating it.

How did boring, grassy, chemical-laden lawns become such a desirable thing?  The history of the lawn has a lot to do with showing off money.  Lawns as we know them today, though, are not merely an ostentatious show of wealth, but they actually go against nature.  It’s time to reevaluate our outlook and aim for a yard full of healthy, natural, varied plants.

Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, fed with nutrient-rich compost, are not only better for you and the environment, but are so much more interesting.  Plant tomatoes, basil, beets, radishes, fennel, squash, peppers, or whatever you like to eat.  Keep a patch of borage, comfrey, and chamomile for the bees–and for beauty.  Use cover crops like clover or rye as a green manure (natural fertilizer) in the winter.  For a lower maintenance yard, plant native prairie wildflowers.  And let those dandelions grow

Dandelions have–quiet undeservedly–earned the title of weed, but this was not always the case.  Highly nutritious, they were once an herb revered by European settlers (the ones who brought them to America) for the medicinal and food qualities.  They provided early salad greens in the spring and they were used for wine making.  They are still used many to treat a myriad of ailments.  Perhaps most importantly, though, they are some of the first forage available to bees in the spring.  (And bees are important, since they pollinate most of our food supply.)

If planting so many different things seems daunting, just start small.   Quit using herbicides and chemical fertilizers.  Mow and trim a little less frequently.  Plant one or two new things.   Don’t water so much, and when you do, make sure it isn’t running onto your driveway or into the street.   And for the love of Pete, don’t water if you don’t need to!!  Has it been raining for the last week?  You probably shouldn’t turn on those sprinklers the next day.  (Yes, I’ve seen people do this.)

Are there other roadblocks in your way?  Does your HOA require that you keep a “perfect” yard?  Write them a letter or share this with them.  State the facts.  Don’t be afraid to shake things up…even if you don’t have success right away, you may at least get others to start thinking.

Are your own feelings telling you that anything less than a deep green carpet of sod is unacceptable?  Don’t be afraid to question your own preferences, too!  Do you cling to the idea of the “traditional” (i.e. less environmentally-sound) lawn because you think it’s truly superior, or because you want to blend in?  Are you resisting a beautiful, beneficial ecosystem of biodiversity because you are fundamentally opposed to it, or because it’s what you think everyone else is doing?

If you are thinking about creating a healthier yard, check out a few of these sites to get some inspiration:
Food Not Lawns
Grow Food Not Lawns
Permaculture Research Institute
Article: How to Ditch Your Lawn and Grow Food
Article:  Grow food, not grass, to fight climate change

Are you already doing some of these things?  We’d love to hear about your journey!  Are you facing challenges?  Share those too and maybe we can work out some solutions.


French Marigold Seed Giveaway!

It’s time for a giveaway!

While my supply is ample, it is (unfortunately) not infinite.  So, here’s how we’ll do this:

I will post the giveaway pic on our facebook page several times this week.  (If you aren’t already following us, find us here!)  The first people to comment (exact number will be determined in each post) will receive a free pack of seeds, harvested by hand from my own garden.   (I will contact  the winners for a mailing address, but promise this information will remain confidential and not sold or given away for any reason.)

How to Grow:
These seeds can be sewn indoors 6 weeks before the last frost and then transplanted, or sewn outdoors after.  They need a sunny spot, should be watered regularly, but beyond that, I have found these to be pretty tough plants that don’t need much attention.  Pinch back dead heads to encourage new blooms.

French Marigold Facts:
French marigolds, or those of the Tagetes genus, are actually native to Mexico and Central America, not France.   (They are also not to be confused with “Pot Marigold,” or Calendula officinalis, which is an entirely different plant!)*  French marigolds have a pungent aroma and are believed to be an effective plant for naturally controlling pests, but I mostly like them because they are so cheerful!   Bushy, compact plants grow about a foot tall.  This is a mix of orange and yellow.
*Pot marigold is edible, while French marigold is not.  Please DO NOT eat these marigolds!

The first giveaway opportunity will happen on Tuesday, October 3, so keep watching!

Adventures in learning and growing in Wichita, Kansas