Thursday, May 14, 2015

2015 Cover Crop / Garden Experiment

For those that haven't been following along from the beginning, I have a garden/test plot area on the farm that I've been using as an experimental area to test out different ideas with cover crops, terra preta, etc.  Last summer, I planted a cover crop mixture in this area that eventually grew to be mostly sorghum-sudangrass since it's such an aggressively growing plant.

Once the sorghum-sudangrass started heading out in late summer, I ran a lawn mower without the mower engaged over all of it so that I could flatten everything to the ground instead of chopping it all up with the mower.  The idea behind that was to terminate the growth and also create a thick mat of residue.  After I'd flattened the entire area, I spread some biochar over the area (about a 30 gal. trashcan of biochar spread over a 2000 sq.ft. area?).  Most of the sorghum-sudangrass eventually regrew after that to a height of about 36" before it was winter killed in early fall.

This spring, I was surprised at how good the soil looked in that area, I still had some residue on the surface, I had a thin wheat stand growing (not sure if that came from my cover crop cocktail mix or not), and it was easy to find earthworms almost every time I dug a hole in the cover cropped area (I've never really noticed that many worms in my gardens before).  It looked so good that I almsot didn't want to run the tiller over it.  I've built about four gardens, so far this one is the best one I've built, and I'm starting to think that growing warm season grasses like sorghum-sudangrass as a cover crop works quicker and better than growing cover crops of cool season grasses like wheat to build soils. 

I'm hoping that the part of my cropland that I planted sorghum-sudangrass and grazed this winter improves in a similar way.

This year I decided to combine some cover cropping and growing some actual food by planting what I'd call a modified Buffalo Bird Woman type of garden (you can find the actual book online at: ).  Some people might call it a three sisters type of garden with corn, beans, and squash.  Typically corn is planted in hills about three foot apart in a four row block, with hills of beans and squash in between the larger blocks of corn.
2015 Combination Cover Crop / Garden Experiment Plan
I don't really want to do a bunch of hoeing in between the hills, I want it to be almost like a jungle of growth to get more of the cover cropping benefits.  So I decided to plant rows of alternating corn and beans, and rows of beans and watermelon to greatly modify the methods that people like Buffalo Bird Woman were using hundreds of years ago. 
A bucket with both beans and corn, a string line, and a planting stick and you're good to go
Planting alternating hills of beans and corn in a straight line can make your head explode if you make it too complicated, but with a string line and a planting stick marked every foot, it was easier than I thought it would be.  
 Everything coming up, from L to R, turnips, corn/beans, beans/watermelon, corn/beans, tomatoes, potatoes
With all the rain we've been getting since I planted, almost every seed has germinated and in a few more weeks it should look even more interesting, but the "before" photo is pretty interesting already with the alternating bean and corn plants.  Stay tuned for updates on this hopefully edible cover crop experiment.

And, so I can better remember what I planted, the corn is Minnesota 13, (an 87 day field corn) and the beans are just ordinary pinto beans from the grocery store. 


  1. I've heard of such gardens but have never seen one in action so to speak. It will be interesting to see "how your garden grows" over the course of the year.

    1. I should have included it in my post, but along the same line of thinking there's an online video about planting both corn and a forage soybean in alternating 15" rows at:

      They were able to grow 60-80 bu corn from a late planting with no added nitrogen and only the soybeans supplying nitrogen. I'm not sure what the typical corn yield is in that area, but I'd be satisfied with 80 bu. corn from no added inputs besides some soybean planting. I'd imagine that I could also winter a lot of cows on a field of a combination of 80 bu corn stubble and cover cropped soybean.

      I was thinking about planting alternating rows of beans and corn in a similar way with my Earthway garden planter, but with as much residue as I had laying on the surface I figured I'd end up throwing it as far as I could in frustration when I couldn't get it to work so I decided to plant hills of corn and beans instead.

      If I can get this garden-sized plot to work, the next step would be to scale it up and see if I can split the rows with the planter good enough to plant alternating rows of soybeans or cowpeas and corn in a field.