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August has delivered classic summer weather, including last week’s heatwave and persistent humidity. Major crops have finally hit their stride, potatoes, peppers, carrots, broccoli, cukes and zukes. Even the initial trickle of tomatoes has become a more regular supply.Precipitation has lagged behind, however, with only 1.88 inches measured through the 18th, according to local weather observer Ed Bergeron. But then the rains came, with a dousing on Thursday.In the meantime, extended spells of high humidity have taken a toll in terms of plant disease, with late blight evident in the potatoes, and bacterial wilt taking cucurbits like cucumbers and squash.
Late summer and early fall can be the most important seasons in the garden since a good cleanup and fertilization program is essential to continuing success. This transition season is also the time to plant a cover crop, and Thursday’s rain created ideal conditions for sowing one.Cover cropping is a valuable cultural practice venerated for centuries, once a mainstay of soil fertility. The introduction of chemical fertilizers impacted the practice since for a time they seemed an easy route to soil fertility. Chemicals don’t provide organic matter, though, and their price is tied to the fossil fuels used to produce them.Cover crops are also referred to as green manures, though there is only a nuanced difference between them. One way to think about it is that cover crops are the actual plants, and green manure is created when it is plowed in. Some consider green manures to be a mix of two types of seed, typically a grain and a legume. By either name, both produce prodigious amounts of organic matter and prevent soil erosion by wind and water. The deep roots of these plantings are also capable of drawing nutrients to the surface where they’re available to future crops.Whether oats, vetch, field peas or mustard, all nurture earthworms and microorganisms while building the soil. Once turned in, the greenery provides air spaces in the subsoil, improving its texture as it breaks down and playing a role in nutrient and water retention. As an added attraction, cover crops choke out weeds in the process.Species used for cover crops are either winter hardy, or winter-killed, and that is determined by growing zone. What will winter over here in the mountains can be very different than southern New Hampshire. In our case, winter hardy choices, depending on snow cover and low temperatures, include winter rye, crimson clover and hairy vetch. Established now, they can create an extensive root system that protects soil from the dynamic forces of wind and water.As to more cold-sensitive cover crops, oats are a case in point. Sown in late summer, the plant thrives, slowed only by cold conditions and hard frost. The winter-killed mulch and root mass will hold the soil in place, however, until the following spring. Buckwheat falls in this category as well, quick-growing, and once it blooms is a magnet to bees and other pollinating insects.
Another option is to use a mix of both winter hardy and cold-sensitive plants. A great example is Johnny’s Seeds Fall Green Manure Mix, a blend of winter rye, field peas, ryegrass, crimson clover and hairy vetch. Hard frosts will take out the peas, clover and ryegrass, while the winter rye and hairy vetch will regrow in spring.Not to be overlooked are the brassicas, including mustard, rapeseed and forage radish.Valued for their rapid fall growth and ability to produce ample biomass, some of these cultivars also have taproots that scavenge for nutrients and alleviate soil compaction.Research into this clan has confirmed their ability to release biotoxic compounds or metabolic byproducts that exhibit broad activity against bacteria, fungi, insects, nematodes and weeds. Mustard leads the class in these characteristics and caught my attention as a proactive way to address persistent disease issues. Despite crop rotation and careful annual cleanup, I have ongoing problems with blight and other soil-borne diseases.These members of the brassica family produce high levels of glucosinates that break down into biologically active sulfur-containing compounds called thiocyanates. With this is mind I have sown yellow mustard in a number of beds, and once mature, I’ll cut and till in the plant material to capture its natural fumigating properties.The first step in establishing a cover crop is preparation, and you can start by clearing up plant residue and weeds in the spot you intend to plant and turning the soil. Small hand seeders are a great way to broadcast cover crops in confined areas like your garden and raised beds. The natural tendency is to over-seed, so try not to be heavy-handed. And keep in mind that no area is too small or large for cover cropping.The amount of plant food in a well-grown cover crop is remarkable, though the type of crop grown and when it is tilled under determines the availability of nutrients. Together with their ability to conserve topsoil from leaching and erosion, while adding valuable organic matter, cover crops are a valuable practice for farmers and home gardeners alike.Ann Bennett writes and gardens on a hillside farm in Jackson.
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