Over the past few years our garden was slowly going down hill. After continual cropping, even the easy radish wasn’t so easy anymore. I used plenty of organic fertilizers like fish emulsion, seaweed, bat guanos, and sometimes dried chicken manure. But the soil was clearly exhausted and standard practices didn’t get results over time. My first thought was that I needed to start cover cropping. But the question was how to adapt farm style cover crops to 3 foot wide , often hand dug neat (sort of!) beds. The other question was time. We don’t have enough space to have half the garden in maturing cover crops all summer. Looking over the cover crop chart in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, only one – oats, seemed to be adaptable to small garden beds. I was also looking for something instant, maybe with a little magic. After several trials, the oat grass proved to be an excellent first step to solving my soil problems.
In the past, I grew wheat grass in shallow trays indoors, the seeds super close together, letting it grow only 7-10 days, and that became the model. Sowing the oats much closer together than recommended for standard cover crops began to miniaturize the process. Then I let the oat grass grow only 6-8 inches tall. This usually takes only 10-14 days. When the bed looks like a large tray of wheatgrass, ready to juice, I turned it under using a shovel. I’ve been amazed at how easy this turning has been (and I’m almost 69!) compared to my previous torturous bed turning without this cover crop. The soil takes on a new quality, not really like soil anymore, but overflowing with young roots and tender blades, all with a pillow-like texture that microbes seem to love and break down in a hurry.
In early August, I put in Chinese cabbage transplants the very next day after turning the oats under. It was an emergency and this was the only availabe space. I just pushed aside any grass pieces and inserted them within the living, decaying mulch – most of which disappeared within a week. The Chinese cabbage is doing nicely – usually a quite ungrowable crop for me, its halting growth attracting scads of tiny flea beetles. I find it difficul to buy organically grown Chinese cabbage, and we love to use it for kimchi. Now I’m hoping for a warm September so these will head up.
Over the next year I plan to learn more techniques to move this garden from limping to in sync with the latest soil science adding worm castings (still have to get the worm bin), compost, compost teas, and comfrey and nettle mulches. One of my great helps and inspirations has been John Kohler’s YouTube site, GrowingYourGreens.com. Many thanks to John! Next, My Inscrutable Grape Vines.