Under the Cover of Green Manure

We’re all familiar with that wonderful brown substance we call manure, or, as I prefer to call it, “fruit of the butt.” Manure is a rich source of nitrogen for our growing plants, and it can also serve as a mulch. Yes, without manure, life would be pretty sh…, well, you get the idea.

Now, I’d like to introduce you to a different kind of manure. This kind does not come from a bovine or equine backside, but it grows right out of the soil. These are various plants known collectively as cover crops or green manure. Green manure plants are grown for the sole purpose of being killed by cold weather, chopped up, and worked into the soil. Like the other kind of manure, it provides nitrogen, but it does a whole lot more. Green manure crops can crowd out weeds, reduce soil erosion, and improve the overall condition of the soil.

Green manure crops are generally planted in late summer or early fall, then chopped up and worked into the soil in the early spring. Alternatively, they can also be planted in spring or summer, and then tilled into the soil before planting a vegetable crop. They can also be planted in place of a vegetable crop and then worked into the soil to condition it for the following year’s crops.

Green manure crops consist of both legume and non-legume plants. Legumes such as field peas or vetch are planted for their nitrogen-fixing ability while non-legumes – grain crops like rye or wheat are planted for their ability to crowd out weeds. A wide variety of plants can be used as green manure crops. The table below lists some common ones.

The University of Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension gives these instructions for planting. To plant a cover crop or green manure, first clear the planting area of any large stones and other debris.  Rake the area smooth and broadcast seed according to the seeding rate given in Table 1 or as recommended by the seed provider.  Rake the area again to incorporate the seeds into the soil, and lightly water the area. To prevent the cover crop from self-seeding in other areas of your garden, and to utilize the cover crop to its fullest potential, cut down plants when, or just before, they start to flower.  You can cut plants by hand, or by using a trimmer, brush cutter, or mower.  Cutting before flowering not only prevents the cover crop from going to seed, but also stops the plant from taking up nutrients from the soil to store in its seed.  Once plants have been cut, incorporate the plants into the soil (using a shovel, pitch fork or rototiller) where they can more readily decompose.  Allow approximately two to three weeks for the cover crop to decompose before planting your vegetables into the soil. (Source: University of Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension)

So if you are looking for a way to improve the condition of your soil, and the brown manure isn’t doing the job, then why not try the green?

Eat the Weeds

garden-with-weeds

Weeds. We hate them. They compete with our fruit and vegetable crops for nutrients, water, and light. They are overachievers when it comes to growth. Removing them mechanically is hot, dirty, tiring, backbreaking work, and removing them chemically is poisonous to our environment and hazardous to our health. Of course, you can lay down mulch, which is a less labor intensive and more environmentally friendly way of controlling the weeds. But I’m going to offer you a fourth option. To paraphrase a passage from the bible, open your mouth wide, and I will fill it – with weeds. In other words – eat them!

 
“This time, he’s gone too far,” you mutter to yourself while shaking your head, “Is he actually suggesting that I should put those horrible things in my mouth? Chew them and swallow them? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. But before you call the men in white coats to have me fitted for an arms-binding overcoat and permanently relocated to a padded mansion, please hear me out. No, I’m not suggesting that you should eat thistle or ground ivy. But believe it or not, there are many plants that grow with impunity in our gardens that are actually fit for human consumption.

 
Dandelion – They are the scourge of those who want a sea of uninterrupted green grass. But dandelions are a nutritional powerhouse! They are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and carotene. The greens are loaded with calcium, iron, and antioxidants, and contain more protein than spinach. The flowers can be used in salads and breads and can also be used to make wine. The roots can be dried and ground and brewed to make a coffee substitute.

dandelion
Red clover – Red clover is chock full of protein and is also an excellent source of beta-carotene, many of the B vitamins, vitamin C and bioflavonoids. The flowers can be used in teas and salads and can also be pan roasted into a crispy treat.

red-clover
Chickweed – This low growing succulent is overflowing with nutritional goodness — vitamins, minerals, and omega-6 fatty acid derivatives to mention a few. Leaves and stems can be added to salads or prepared as a cooked green. Use it sparingly, however; consuming too much at one sitting can cause diarrhea.

chickweed
Purslane – Purslane, with its thick, fleshy stems and leaves is another nutritional powerhouse containing generous amounts of iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and C. Purslane is often used as a spinach substitute, and can be eaten raw or cooked.

purslane
And that’s just a small sample of the many edible weeds out there.
Remember that as long as there are gardens, there will always be weeds. But don’t let them get you down. If you can’t beat ‘em – eat ‘em!