Phaecelia used as a cover crop attracts bees and provides them with high quality nectar. (Mary Lowther photo)

Phaecelia used as a cover crop attracts bees and provides them with high quality nectar. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Cover crops keep soil healthy and productive

We don’t harvest a cover crop and instead dig the tops under when they’re immature and soft

By Mary Lowther

I’ve referred to using cover crop before because it’s a necessary part of my garden planning. Cover crop is any plant used to clean and build soil and prevent erosion. We don’t harvest a cover crop and instead dig the tops under when they’re immature and soft, cut the tops down and leave them where they lay, or compost the tops and allow the roots to rot in the soil where they provide nutrients and air spaces for soil organisms.

Cover crop differs from fallowing in that a fallowed field has not been sown with anything, but is just left to its own devices growing weeds that are then treated the same way as cover crop. Weeds add nutrients to the soil and are better than nothing, but cover crops don’t go to seed as quickly as weeds and are easier to dig under, unless it’s winter rye that’s been allowed to go to seed.

Farmers have been sowing cover crops since Roman days and probably before that, so this is nothing new. I’m a good copycat and can follow what farmers before me have found to be useful, but I like to experiment a bit. For example, legumes and grasses are recommended to be used in conjunction: legumes add nitrogen to the soil and grasses add massive amounts of roots. But they flower at different times, so if I want to dig them under or cut them down when they’re soft enough to handle, I’ll need to do this before either one goes to seed because that’s when plants become tough and difficult to cut down. I also want to let them flower to feed bees and other pollinators, so if I dig everything under once one type has flowered, pollinators will not have been able to feed on the other crop. So I plan on sowing one type of cover crop at a time, making sure that I eventually sow legumes and grasses in each bed.

When planning my rotation of crops, I include a cover crop rotation so that the soil is never bare and one bed goes through the whole season under a cover crop. Spring and summer crops like buckwheat and vetch flower early and are good to sow between crops, while overwintering cover crops like fava beans and fall rye grow well during cooler autumn days.

A flower called phaecelia also works well as a cover crop. Blooming all summer until well into fall, phaecelia attracts bees and provides them with high quality nectar. Its dense root system improves soil structure and builds nitrogen into the soil, and the plant is drought tolerant and remains soft to dig under even when gone to seed. I have not found phaecelia available as a cover crop seed so I bought just one packet last year, hoping to save enough seed to use as a cover crop. Phaecelia from this one packet grew in abundance, producing copious amounts of seed that I intend to cover a bed with this year, saving the seed again to use the following year. I’ll sow this crop by itself in the spring and then undersow with fall rye in mid summer that will take the bed through the winter. Undersowing means to sow seed underneath plants that are already growing. The cool canopy of phaecelia should protect fresh seeds from sunburn and birds, and I’ll water them by hand until the rye sprouts.

In late fall the rye should be just a few inches high, so I’ll cut down the phaecelia above this and after removing the seeds, toss the rest into the compost heap.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

Columngardening

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A police car at the scene of a child’s death Friday, April 9, at the Falcon Nest Motel in Duncan. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
RCMP investigating child’s death at Duncan’s Falcon Nest Motel

First responders responded to a call about an unresponsive child at the… Continue reading

Town of Lake Cowichan looking to form tourism and housing committees

Decision not related to the Lake Cowichan Visitor Information Centre closure

“Representing the school district, legion, and Kaatza Station Museum left to right are Georgie Clark of the museum, Wilma Rowbottom of School District #66 and Ernie Spencer, representing the Legion. The museum and Legion, along with the Village will each take a piece of the old wood shop.” (The Lake News)
Lake Flashback: Soapboxes, woodshop split, taxes down

Remember these stories from Lake Cowichan?

Tim Schewe
Drivesmart column: Rules around bicycle lanes

The lane is often painted green to distinguish it from lanes intended for motor vehicles.

Robert’s column
Robert Barron column: New hospital shouldn’t charge for parking

Paying a parking meter is the last thing people visiting a hospital should have to worry about.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations near Vancouver Island

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Most Read