Saturday, September 12, 2015

Better Late Than Never 2015 Garden Cover Crop Update

Back in early May, I planted some alternating hills of corn and pinto beans along with some alternating hills of squashes, watermelons, and beans as a cover cropping experiment.  At the time, I said I was going to try to document the progress of this sort of cover crop planting and then I promptly forget about putting any updates at all on the blog (mainly because all of the photos I took along the way turned out all blurry for some reason).  But while looking through some photos, I happened to find a couple taken sometime in late-June that weren't all blurry which makes it a whole lot easier to show what was going on this summer with this cover crop.
approx. 6/28 - corn is just starting to tassel
Notice the hills of beans in between each hill of corn in the "row of corn"

This area of the garden was planted with the mixture of corn, beans, squash and watermelons right about the time most of the heavy rains we received this spring really started coming (rainfall totals were close to 30" in 30 days), but it seemed like the garden just sucked up every bit of rain and didn't really got waterlogged.  I don't know if it was a combination of the mountain of compost I spread years ago, the biochar, the residue from the cover crop mix, the earthworm activity, or a combination of all of the above, but it was pretty interesting the way the water just kept soaking into the ground.  Of course, I also could have just been seeing what I wanted to see, and the rain would have soaked in regardless of what I'd done in the garden.

I was looking forward to eating some watermelons out of this garden this year, but the pinto beans overwhelmed the watermelons and squash faster than I thought they would, and this was a home-grown watermelon-less summer for me and mine.  The next time I try something like this, I'll plant the  watermelons in their own row, with anything else planted at least 3-4 feet away so that I hopefully won't have to suffer through another watermelon-less summer.  
It's not really impressive corn, but there was some corn at the end of summer
I was a little surprised at how the corn grew when it was planted in hills like this.  My original thinking when I planted these alternating hills of corn and beans was that it would be more of a thicker cover crop type of planting with not very many ears of corn.  I also wasn't too sure about what sort of pollination I'd get, if any, with the the rows of corn spaced on six foot centers. But after the corn dried down I found a decent amount of harvestable ears of corn in almost every hill I'd planted. 

The corn was an open-pollinated corn variety (87 day Minnesota 13) that I first planted about 6-7 years ago and I've been saving seed from that first planting since then, so I made sure to save all the nice big ears of corn I could find. Growing OP corn and saving seed is interesting (at least to me) and I had grand plans for it on the farm back when I first started trying to grow it, so I might share a little about what I think about OP corn in the future.  

It's hard to define if this "experiment" was a success or failure (whatever that might mean to you or me), but I did come up with a few ideas about what I might try in the future both on the farm and in the garden.   

I've been thinking that I could easily use the planter to plant a cover crop of alternating rows of corn and beans (soybeans or cowpeas) simply by installing alternating corn and soybeans plates.  My planter uses a 30 cell corn plate and a 120 cell soybean plate so I could easily get the seed counts pretty close to optimum for both (i.e. the equivalent of 25K corn seeds and 100K soybean seeds per acre in each row).  A field of alternating rows of corn and cowpeas (or grain sorghum and cowpeas) would make a pretty interesting looking cover crop, and it's possible that I might even be able to harvest some corn, or I could just use the cattle to harvest it either during the summer or over the winter. 

Or, I might just mix some corn and beans together in each planter box and plant them as a mixture to duplicate the row of alternating hills of corn and beans.

It's interesting how ideas and plans can come from a handful of seeds, somewhere to plant them, a few photos, and a little head-scratching trying to figure out what you're seeing.  As always, so many ideas, but so little time and energy.


  1. Looking at this makes me regret I didn't start my garden, which I haven't planted in probably ten years or so, back up.

    1. Without a garden during a typical summer, I wouldn't have any tomatoes worth eating, okra for my gumbo, chiles for fajitas, or green beans to go with my steak.

      Ten years seems like a awful long time to go without eating a bacon and tomato sandwich that was worth eating.

  2. I like the idea of planting a garden with intermingling species to achieve more crop in a small space with hopefully less inputs like weeding and such. Someday if I ever get a full fledged garden started, it would be nice if I could still have access to blogs like this and Ron's blog so I don't have to replicate from memory what others have pioneered before me. Until then, I live close enough to my parents farm that I just raid it and supplement with what I can grow on my deck. Like you said, ten years is much to long to go without a decent bacon and tomato sandwich, fajitas or gumbo. I'm more of a stuffed green pepper guy with my steaks.

    1. I'd argue that you should go ahead and build a garden right now instead of waiting, especially if you still have little kids running around since there is a lot of important life-lesson stuff for them to learn from a garden.

      The way I see it, most of the nuts and bolts of a garden are pretty simple. Start out building your garden by growing some sort of cover crop (or green manure crop if that's what you want to call it) like oats, winter wheat, blackeye peas, sorghum-sudangrass, buckwheat, etc. Plant everything in wide rows (i.e. double rows of green beans). Mulch plants like tomatoes and squash. Don't worry excessively about a few weeds here and there.

      Once you get most of the nuts and bolts out of the way, you can start fooling around with other things like compost, planting cover crop mixes, and making biochar (don't forget to tell the kids outlandish tales about the connections between rocket stoves, conquistadors, Eldorado, terra preta, and biochar).

      But, the teaching-kids-life-lessons-harvest might be the most important crop you harvest from your garden. They'll learn about producing something by planting a seed. They'll fail miserably even though they did everything right simply because a drought came, or the bugs ate everything, or a flood came. They'll learn about generosity when they give a bucket of tomatoes to the neighbors. They'll understand what it means to be self-sufficient when they are able to feed themselves from what they can grow. They'll be more likely to survive to come back home if they're ever shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe style. They'll simply learn that food doesn't come from the grocery store.

      Or, they'll tell stories to their kids and grandkids about how they had to toil endlessly in the garden on hot summer days because their father was a big mean doo-doo head.

    2. I don't think I've ever eaten a stuffed green pepper with a steak, by itself, or in any other way. Any suggestions on the best way to dip my toe into the world of eating stuffed green peppers with or without a steak?

    3. It's not the starting or challenge that bothers me. It is keeping the deer away. Right where our future garden will go we have a heard of about twenty deer pass by twice a day. Coming up with a way to keep them out while being attractive enough to suit the wife is my challenge. Until then, I still have larger fish to fry with the fixer upper house that seem more important. I think perhaps next year I can devote time to fencing in a garden and then the year after that get serious planting before the kids get too old.

      I have to admit, I cheat a bit with the stuffed peppers. The local grocery store sells some Anaheim peppers (sometimes bell) stuffed with some cheeses and bacon in the meat counter that grill up real nice with the steaks. My wife does make some homemade stuffed green peppers with rice and sausage and stews them in some sort of broth. She learned how to make them from a Russian friend and they are pretty good but more of a meal in themselves. To me, peppers are like tacos, you can stuff them with about whatever you want and they will turn out decent.

    4. A pile of grilled cheese-and-bacon stuffed chiles sounds like it would almost perfect to go with a steak and baked potato.

      I've taken jalapenos and chiles, stuck strips of venison and onion inside of them, wrapped them with a little bacon, and grilled them until the bacon was crispy. It was an easy to make spicy, meaty, crispy bacon party in my mouth. At the time, I thought adding a little cheese might be the perfect addition.