Farm News

Creative Processing: Part II

photos of colorful produce, figs and onions

part two: The Winter Cover Crop

This essay is a continuation of last week’s musings on creative processing.

Eventually, the mixing and matching of fabrics and shapes subsides and the quilter heads for the scissors, needle and thread. It’s time for action. In late September, I head to my fields with seeds of various sizes, shapes and colors in tow. There, the remnants of summer crops and plant residues are in various stages of decay. What comes next? It’s time to sow winter cover crops.

My farm quilt is heavy because it is composed of multiple layers. If soil is the backing, then my winter cover crops are a thick batting. Cover crops are plants that protect the soil from rains, add or hold nutrients, loosen compacted soil, and improve the habitat for macro and micro-soil dwellers. These are crops planted for the express benefit of the soil; no part of the plant is harvested or sold. Eight months from now, no one will see them, but just as the feel of a quilt is largely determined by the thickness of the batting, the cover crops I now sow into my quilt will have a substantive effect on the yields and health of next year’s market crops.

How does one choose the right cover crop batting? I must think spatially to ensure relationships and adjacencies are mutually beneficial over time. Rye grain and hairy vetch lend body and structure, feeding the soil with large amounts of biomass. The rye binds soil nitrogen to keep it from leaching away and quickly colors the land with a dusty, spiraling green. (You can see it now, a soft fuzz of grass-like leaves germinating in the fields closest to the gravel lane.) Hairy vetch unfurls thick vines and compound pinnate leaves which climb the rye stalks rapidly and dot the spring fields with deep violet, tubular blossoms from which the bees drink heavily.

Instead of the traditional plain white batting, my batting is multi-colored and multi-textured. Visually, I am sowing a constantly changing tapestry of art. Practically, I am deciding what crops can or cannot come next.

For example, the three inch tall curling green rye of November will metamorphosis into five foot tall fibrous tan stalks by June. So while rye and her good friend vetch provide excellent soil protection and organic matter, they require additional time in the spring to break down such a significant amount of biomass. This is not a problem if I don’t need to transplant crops until late June. But what about my early spring lettuces and greens? Field peas are slower growing, but pull nitrogen right out of the sky to feed those hungry spring transplants. Oats act as a nurse crop. The bright green seedlings emerge quickly to cover the bare fall soil, thus blocking sunlight from germinating weeds. Then, in the hard frosts of late winter, the oats die back, giving slower growing peas space and sunlight to flourish. These partners both have a smaller growth habit and tender stems. Thus they are easily incorporated into the soil with only one pass of the disc. Once turned under, the plants release their nitrogen stores and provide a soft, rich seedbed for my earliest, slower growing crops.

So in one way, winter cover crops are the activity that puts our fields to rest for the closing year. In another way, their sowing represents a beginning- the first act we perform in the coming year’s farming cycle.

photo of new plants growing in a field

In one block, I’ve sowed oats and peas. All winter and spring, the peas will work their green magic by pulling nitrogen from the sky to sequester it in a network of roots that appear as bright pink polka-dots connected by gleaming white threads. Next spring, we’ll turn under the oats and peas and hand plant undulating hills of potatoes. Those plants we hope will grow lush and green, hiding their underground treasures in shades of purple, red and cream. In late summer, we’ll un-stich these hills by hand, then iron smooth the wrinkled ground in preparation for rye and vetch to grow all winter. The following spring, we’ll turn under the rye and vetch, hoping rye’s allelopathic properties will help suppress future weeds and vetch’s extensive biomass and blooms will feed our soil and our bees. Then the cycle will begin again: a new year’s quilt, but rotated. Never the same square twice. If potatoes occupied Block 4 this year, perhaps we’ll ‘stitch’ them into Block 5 next year. Can you see now, how my winter cover quilt is one hidden, but important element of this perpetual quilt of systems and cycles?

My winter cover crops are partially hand seeded, and partially sown by machine. My grandmother made handstiching look effortless, but she also relied on a treadle powered Singer. My machine is a little red hand-cranked broadcast seeder. Without the din of any engine, I can hear the pleasant tap-tap-tap the seeds make as they land on the receptive soil. I wonder, did the rhythmic motion of the foot pedal and the sounds of the Singer similarly delight my grandmother?

My footprints across the blocks, followed by the ridged steel of the cultipacker, act like a presser foot to ensure the soil stays taut against the newly sown seeds. Sufficient seed-to-soil contact is important for germination; we all need shelter and stability. It feels good, giving protection and cover back to the land that has fed us all season long. It feels right to be blanketing my earth, tucking her in with a heavy, handcrafted winter cover quilt.

Now, there is only one thing left to do: secure the layers together. Real quilters use a special frame and heavy thread. How will my seeds and soil become united? I leave this most important work of connecting layers to Nature. I imagine she’s partial to hand tying; raindrop by raindrop, she’ll call awake her seeds. These new living beings will then send their roots deep and wide, holding the soil and entwining each other with the comfort of a newfound integrity.

My work done, I wait eagerly to welcome home the lively, quilting rains. ~AJ