Grow Green Manure

Discover how cover crops, such as oats, peas, buckwheat, and more, can give back to your soil and your homestead.

Green Manure 
Photo by Masha Dougherty

This is adapted from Shawn and Beth Dougherty's book, The Independent Farmstead (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016). 

Finding room in the garden, or time in your rotations, for cover crops can be difficult — don’t we know it! On our farm, The Sow’s Ear, we grow most of the food — and feed — for all of our people and animals. To avoid erosion and loss of soil nutrients, we try to minimize the land kept in cultivation, and sometimes devote a full crop to smothering weeds, or building fertility and soil organic content. Excellent as those goals are, they can seem like obstacles to productivity. So we’re always glad to find new ways of leveraging our covers and green manures to perform as many functions as possible. Who wouldn’t like a green manure that also acts as a nitrogen sponge, mulch, and chicken food and bedding? Or what about a weed-suppressing crop that provides winter food for pigs? Or a nitrogen-fixer that smothers weeds, and then doubles as food?

Benefits of Buckwheat

Take buckwheat. This fast-growing, broad-leaved, warm-weather crop is a quick way to crowd out weeds, and its brittle stems are easy to till into the soil for added organic matter. The normal procedure with buckwheat is to till it when it starts to flower but hasn’t yet set seed.

Green Manure
Photo by Masha Dougherty

Buckwheat flowers over a long period of time: Seeds begin to mature from the early flowers while the plant is only half-grown. If we till in our buckwheat early enough to prevent seed set, we lose a great deal of the plant’s potential soil-building organic matter. Not only that, we lose an abundant and reliable honey crop, as buckwheat flowers are a favorite with bees. But if we wait for full growth, buckwheat’s generous crop of seeds means our cover will become a weed infestation in the next crop rotation. Catch-22, you think? Enter the chicken flock! Buckwheat is one of our favorite covers when we combine it with chickens in tractors.

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