Three cover crops that are perfect for the soil in the Blackland Prairies ecoregion in Central Texas, include buckwheat, peas, and crimson clover. The benefits of peas and clover cover crops include adding nitrogen back into the soil. Peas and clover are members of the Legume family and increase organic matter in the soil, encourage beneficial insects, which increases pollination for your growing spaces when the flowers are in bloom. Clover also provides an excellent breeding ground for ladybugs, the larvae, and pupa thrive in the microclimate that they create. Allowing some of your winter and spring crops to bolt and flower may encourage aphids to visit but that’s what ladybugs and larvae love to eat so you can boost your beneficial insects in your backyard just by making a few exceptions! This year has been incredible watching the lady bug populations go wild in our largest garden. It’s hard to believe that just a year and a half ago our largest bed was a small butterfly garden, but mostly clay covered by grass.
A disadvantage of using clover is that it can only survive in cooler months like spring, fall and winter, and withers in the heat of the summer. This year I planted crimson clover mid winter due to the mild temperatures, but often it’s recommended to start before winter. Since we have mild winters in Central Texas growing them after the first frost isn’t a problem, they just take longer to progress. Peas get stressed from heat as well and will freeze, but there are other varieties that contend with the heat much better. Crimson clover, Buckwheat and other green manures aka cover crops aid in attracting beneficial insects like bees to pollinate (Shirey n.d.). Some legume cover crops aren’t good at suppressing weeds (Grubinger n.d.).
When the heat turns up Buckwheat is a more appropriate soil builder as it also blocks other weeds from trying to break through and takes one third of the time as clover to develop. Buckwheat produces large amounts of residue that adds organic matter to the soil (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education 2012). Buckwheat also supports pollinator populations (SARE 2012). Buckwheat is very hardy, drought tolerant to some degree and efficient at separating clay to provide a better planting medium and bring nutrients closer to the plants (Taylor 2014). Within 30 days from planting Buckwheat is blooming which makes it a great time energy source for soil building in between other plantings. Chickens love it, and it produces a great seed to make gluten free flour with, or add it or the leaves to your smoothie. Buckwheat can make your landscape and food plate more sustainable!
Planting in the right season is paramount to production growth and the ability to improve soil structure (Grubinger n.d.). Some downsides of cover crops and green manures are that they aren’t produced for revenue but short term economic gain (Grubinger n.d.). Which is why alternating crops and planting a green manure during seasonal changes is a good time to grow these crops on your farm or in your garden because when your soil is bare, beneficial protozoa, fungi, and essential minerals are leached from the soil and it loses structure. This works against the Central Texas grower during drought season. The healthier your soil is, the more drought tolerant they are, and the healthier your plants become! Therefore diseases will potentially be decreased because of your balanced ecosystem.
It is important that cover crops are planted in succession of food crops in order to maximize biodiversity so allow enough time for the plants to enrichen the soil before you plant your next food crop. Green manures can be worked into the soil at any time and harvested early if need be but in order to reach their full potential for your soil it is best to wait until they are ready to bloom. Allowing them to grow beyond blooming increases agrobiodiversity and you will find that some make and excellent living ground cover. For instance, clover is an excellent living, green mulch that surpesses weeds that try to sneak through your nifty rows. It can be an organic and sustainable alternative to straw which is generally sprayed with chemicals if purchased in Texas, or man made ground covers that use excessive amounts of energy to produce and distribute, therefore decreasing the sustainability of your farm and your carbon footprint. Using clover as a living mulch will encourage beneficial bacteria, beneficial bugs, improves soil health, and increases biointensive growing capabilities. Plus, it looks pretty!
Cover crops maintain and improve soil fertility, prevent wind erosion and encourage biomass (SARE 2012). In order for cover crops to be the most beneficial they also need to be trimmed or turned into the soil which can take time. Leaving soil bare prevents bacteria, earthworms, and fungi from encouraging micronutrient production (Relf 2009). Cover crops and green manures should be planted in succession of other crops.
Relf, Diane. Virginia Cooperative Extension. May 1, 2009. https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-722/426-722.html (accessed March 16, 2015).
Shirey, Trisha. Central Texas. http://www.klru.org/ctg/resource/cover-crops-for-winter-gardens/ (accessed March 16, 2015).
Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education. Cover Crops. 2012. http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Topic-Rooms/Cover-Crops (accessed March 16, 2015).
Taylor, Gordon, interview by Kristin Schultz. Travis County Farming (September 18, 2014).
Our first records of weather tracking from the U.S. Weather Bureau were from 1898 for relative humidity, winds and temp. It wasn’t until radiosonde initiatives were launched in 1938 that we were able to test temperature, humidity, pressure, and transmit information during inclement weather (Service 2007). But by then it was too late to see what New York City already had (A&E Television Networks, LLC 2015). The Dust Bowl was an ecological disaster that hit over 150 million acres and drove “exodusters” to urban life east or as far west as California (Eric Foner and John A. Garraty 1991). In 1931 the drought that swept the plains was the onset of the Dust Bowl (Hurt 2002). The Dust Bowl was a direct result of what happens when you mess with science and nature over a degradingly long period of time.
Several generations of farmers monocropped the grasslands of the Great Plains and planted seed into fertile topsoil which became the means to earn a meager wage. They didn’t understand sustainable agriculture, biointensive growing, companion planting, or cultivating drought tolerant seeds. Cattle ranching and wheat farming contributed to the ecological imbalance of earth and sky because they stripped the grasslands dry and left them structureless too. Topsoil stripped of beneficial nutrients and moisture prompted soil erosion. Drought and wind erosion set in parching the dirt even more. After a period of time with no rain, the wind hit the prairies, statically lifting up dust up to 10,000 feet, traveling 65 miles an hour, and causing enough electricity to power NYC (A&E Television Networks, LLC 2015).
By 1934, 300 million tons of top soil had been removed by the Great Plains which touched Kansas, Northeast New Mexico, Southeast Colorado, Oklahoma Panhandles, and parts of Texas (Hurt 2002). Roosevelt enacted “practical measures” to remediate drought, dust, and depression beginning with the Great Plains Drought Area Committee (Hurt 2002). Several organizations were formed to assist with the Dust Bowl and Great Depression including land and social services relief. Most of the Great Plains farmers were in some form of federal agricultural relief program. The AAA, RA, CCC, and FSA couldn’t help enough and someone had to pay for it (Hurt 2002).
The goals for New Deal Agricultural Conservation included removing excess and marginal acreage from crop production, preventing soil erosion with improved agronomic practices, rural zoning, grassroots involvement, eliminating farm poverty, and practicing ecological resource management (Worster 1979). Conservation efforts that were enacted on behalf of the government to plant 220 million trees through the Shelterbelt Program of the Forest Service or let land grow fallow through the Taylor Grazing Act, were just a few attempts to help the Great Plains flourish again (Danbom 1995).
Rexford Tugwell, Lewis Gray and Henry Wallace were detrimental towards sustainable improvements during the 1930s (Worster 1979). Although there were a lot of initiatives in place to alleviate the pressures at the time there wasn’t a consistent foothold in all acts because different people were in control of governmental legislation. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was initiated to teach about soil conservation but one had to sign a five year contract in order to reap rewards. Sustainable education on behalf of agriculture and the environment should have been included in all relief efforts and initiatives. That would have helped prevent future reliance on government assistance and fueled a more sustainable economy. Perhaps they would have been more prepared for a “fundamental environmental reform,” if they were educated along the way (Worster 1979). If our government continued to integrate conservation with sustainable agriculture as part of the New Agricultural reform then and implemented it into sustainable mandated policies to this day, our country would be a lot better off. We’ve come a long way since the Dust Bowl, but our sustainable challenges in agriculture in the twenty first century are far more difficult.
A&E Television Networks, LLC. Dust Storms Strike America. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2015.
Danbom, David B. Born in Country. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. The Dust Bowl. Summary of the Dust Bowl, New York: Houghton The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1991.
Hurt, R. Douglas. Agriculture: A Brief History. West Lafayette: Perdue University Press, 2002.
Service, National Ocean. “A History of Observing the Weather.” NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship. May 31, 2007. http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/foundations/weather_obs/welcome.html#earlyyear (accessed January 22, 2015).
Worster, Donald. Dustbowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
January, the time when we plan new beginnings. I hope this year, your new beginnings include growing plants! Now is the time to be ordering seeds, here are a few companies that you may like! Mother Earth News also has a seed directory in their Jan/Feb 2016 issue. Check out your agricultural extension office in your state to find a list of plants that grow well in your region. You can search your county through your state agricultural extension office to find what foods will grow well there, try googling your county/region and it should pull up some good leads.
Johnny’s is definitely one of the companies that I support. One of their greatest selling points is that they are employee owned. They offer great seed selections and their seed packs have a complete description of how to grow each crop, including germination, cultivation, and potential problems. Another way that they stand out is that their catalog is an excellent resource! They provide the same detailed information on each plant species which can be a very useful tool for a grower! However their prices are high in relation to some other very good companies so I believe in balancing brands with excellent ethos is the best way to plan for my garden, and always check their sales which are fantastic!
Some of the other seed companies that I equally support include Territorial Seed Company that also provides a great description for growers and is Oregon based. The Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa) which is a nonprofit that allows members to have a sustainable impact on seed collection and has unique heirloom varieties. Botanical Interests (Colorado) has been a favorite the last few years because they have incredible prices, and beautifully illustrated seed packets! Stark Bro’s (Missouri) is where I buy my bare root strawberries, and have been very successful with their grapes! They have fantastic customer service and if you aren’t pleased with your plant they’ll send you a new one or credit your account.
Pinetree, another Maine company, offers a great selection of herbs, garden varieties, and a myriad of homesteading supplies. Peaceful Valley out of California has great pricing on organic potatoes, and their catalog series stands out because each issue focuses on a different topic related to organic growing. Lastly, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds are exceptional for their heirloom seed offerings. Their Mansfield, Missouri location is a great place to visit!
All of these products have a different marketing mix, brand, and are located in different bioregions but they all promote more sustainable food systems which is why I love them!