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?

A Green Cure for the Winter Blues

Scientists and medical professionals tell us that we are in for a long, cold, COVID-laden winter. In an effort to avoid exposure to this terrible disease, most of us will hunker down in our homes, avoiding contact as much as possible with anyone outside of our household. And since most of the bars, restaurants, stadiums, casinos, etc. will be shut down by state authorities, there will be few places for us to go anyway. So the next three or four months do, indeed, look quite bleak.

But there are things we can do to mitigate some of the boredom and loneliness, and one of the best is to grow and cultivate some greenery. A few well-placed houseplants can provide some color to brighten up an otherwise dull indoors and improve the blah feelings brought on by a bleak winter landscape. You can even grow some edibles – sprouts, microgreens, herbs, lettuce to provide you with some fresh and nutritious food to offset boring stews and pot roasts.

And then, when you’ve finished all of that, start thumbing through the gardening catalogs that will soon be hitting your mailbox or peruse their websites and see all the new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that you can plant in 2021. Then get out a sketch pad and/or some graph paper and start planning out that beautiful productive garden. It may not change the winter landscape outside your window, but in your heart, snow will melt, skies will clear, and for a few minutes at least, you’ll find yourself feeling a whole lot less miserable. Yes, indeed, nothing chases away a blue mood and lightens the blackness in one’s heart like a bracing dose of green!

Fifty (or More!) Shades of Green

Lately, a lot of attention has been given to the color green. Corporations and other entities talk about how environmentally responsible they are by saying that they are green. Environmental groups accuse those same entities of “greenwashing” (e.g. covering up their actual environmental irresponsibility with a thin veneer of environmentally responsible practices. And nutritionists talk about the importance of including a lot of green vegetables in our diet. And that is what I’d like to talk about here. As gardeners we plant many different kinds of green vegetables. We plant lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and a few others, and we feel that we have our green well represented. I’ll get right to the point. You don’t. There is a whole world of green vegetables that you haven’t touched yet. If you’d like to liven up an otherwise staid and boring salad, then why not try some of these?

 

Miner’s Lettuce – For those who live in colder climates, this is the perfect green for you. Miner’s Lettuce is capable of surviving year-round in a cloche, greenhouse, or even unprotected in colder regions such as the maritime Northwest. It’s also “cut and come again” green as it will quickly re-grow after harvesting. The
heart-shaped leaves are an excellent source of Vitamin C.

 

miners-lettuce

Malabar Spinach – Despite its name, this is not a true spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Malabar spinach (Basella alba) is an edible vine that can climb to heights of thirty feet or longer. The semi-succulent, reddish-colored, heart-shaped leaves can be used in salads, sandwiches, stir-fries, and as a thickener in soups. The plant also produces small grape-like fruits which can be used to make a purple dye. Unlike many other greens which tend to wilt in heat, Malabar spinach thrives in summer weather. The leaves are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, and soluble fiber.

 

malabar-spinach

 

Sorrel – This European native, also known as spinach dock and narrow-leaved dock, is a member of the buckwheat family. The medium-thick, large, spinach-like leaves have a delicious lemony taste that goes well in salads, soups, and sauces. Sorrel is rich in vitamin C and also contains vitamin A, vitamin B-6, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. In terms of beneficial organic compounds, sorrel contains polyphenolic acids, flavonoids, and anthocyanins. Just be careful not to eat too much of it at one time, because the leaves also contain oxalic acid which can cause digestive upset if consumed in large quantities.

sorrel

Orach – Another spinach-like green, this plant also goes by the names of mountain spinach, French spinach, and giant lambsquarters. A cool-season crop, it also can be grown in warmer weather, as it is less prone to bolting than traditional spinach. It grows best in well-drained fertile soils, but it can also tolerate droughty, alkaline, or salty soils. Use Orach as you would spinach or chard. Orach contains high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, carotenes, protein, anthocyanins, zinc, selenium, tryptophan, and dietary fiber.

 

orach

These are just some of the many types of greens that you can grow in your garden. Planting these different greens will add color to both your garden landscape and your meals and provide a cornucopia of nutrition. So why not change things up in your garden and try planting some this year?