Using Cover Crops for Soil Health

 

By: Erin LaFaive, Horticulture Educator UW- Extension, Eau Claire County

Gardens that are worked year after year lose nutrients and organic matter. Adding materials such as partially rotted barnyard manure, composted cow manure, compost, or green manure crops, assists in correcting this depletion problem.

Green manures are also referred to as cover crops. For the home gardener, some of the more easily managed cover crops include buckwheat, oats, and berseem clover because they can be cut and tilled into the soil with hand tools. The key to successfully using cover crops is to cut them BEFORE they create seeds. A flowering cover crop is a sure sign that you must cut them down ASAP.

Cover crops are also beneficial because they help to smotherweeds by blocking the sun-preventing weed seeds from germinating. Cover crops’ root systems can break up compacted soils, adding air pockets within the soil for much needed space for roots and water to navigate. Organic matter is re-introduced to the soil as roots, and leaves decay after the plant is cut and tilled. Some cover crops attract beneficial insects that prey on plant eating insects.

Types of Cover Crops

Buckwheat is an annual, warm-season plant that grows quickly. It sends out a chemical through its root system to inhibit other seeds around it from sprouting, including quack grass seeds. It attracts bees and other pollinators as well as beneficial insects such as lady bugs and lacewings. If you have a Japanese beetle problem, this is not your cover crop as it has a tendency to attract them.

Oats are a fast-growing, cool-season grass. Planted in late summer, it will produce a large quantity of dry matter. It can survive the first few frosts in the fall. It will be killed by winter and easily tilled into the garden in spring.

Berseem clover is a fast-growing, cool-season annual. It can fix nitrogen from the air through its root system. After tilling the plant into the soil, the nitrogen is released in the soil for plant use. It tolerates a light frost.

When to Seed

When to seed a cover crop varies depending on garden establishment and harvesting schedules. In general, cover crops are planted in early spring or late summer. Here are a few recommendations for specific situations.

New garden beds established in spring or early summer can benefit by growing one or two crops of heat-loving buckwheat or beans. New gardens started in late summer benefit from a cover crop that grows quickly in cool weather, including ryegrass, rapeseed, or oats. The dead plant material is turned into the soil in late fall or the following spring.

Another way to use green manures is in established vegetable gardens after early-maturing vegetables have been harvested. Some gardeners continue to plant vegetables that thrive in hot weather or later in the season for vegetables that thrive on the increasing cool weather of the oncoming fall. For those gardeners that need to help depleted soil or simply don’t want to plant a successive crop, plant green manure where these vegetables were growing to keep garden weed free, prevent soil erosion, and add organic matter to the soil. Turn in the dead plant material after a killing frost in late fall.

How to Plant Cover Crops

  • Rake the soil smooth.
  • Broadcast the seed by hand or a broadcast seeder. Sow seeds thickly.
  • Rake soil again to cover seed.
  • Water if necessary.

Things to Consider

Some cover crops can reach heights of two feet. Ask yourself if you will be able to mow a few times as it grows before incorporating the clippings into the soil. If not, the clippings may become matted down by snow pack, which can lead to slow soil warming and drying in spring.

If something prevents you from cutting the cover crop before it flowers, consider finding someone who can. If not, seeds will be added to the soil, and they’ll be popping up in the vegetable garden again. If they do reseed, consider allowing the cover crop to sprout and cut it when the time is appropriate. That garden may need to rest for a growing season to allow the seed bank to eliminate itself through a successive growing pattern. Through the use of green manures the soil will contain more organic matter and beneficial microoganisms and have fewer weeds than before.

Additional Resources

Cover Crops for the Home Garden by John Hendrickson and Jim Stute http://tiny.cc/flknv Erin LaFaive is the horticulture educator for UW-Extension in Eau Claire County.   Erin earned a M.S. in Environmental Studies from the Nelson Institute for environmental studies at the University of Madison-Wisconsin.  She also earned a B.S. in geography with an emphasis in natural resource management at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Composting in the Chippewa Valley

Earthbound Environmental Solutions, LLC

By: Jan Caroll

Putting a new twist on composting in the Chippewa Valley is Earthbound Environmental Solutions, soon offering curbside organics recycling (compost is the product of breaking down the organics collected) along with traditional weekly garbage and recycling pickup. The company hopes to be up and running by summer 2015. They provide a countertop collection container for household organic waste and biodegradable bags to put the waste in, put in your garbage receptacle, and take to your curb on garbage day. This service package is provided for a competitive quarterly fee. Their website, www.earthboundenviro.com, offers several publications (in English, Spanish, and Hmong) that you can print out to get started with composting and help you along the way. They also offer educational and crafts materials for children.

A local family-owned business founded in 2014, Earthbound seeks to keep as much waste out of land fills as possible and convert it to reusable compost for gardens, landscaping, and lawns. They hope to eventually have compost they create at their facility available for purchase. They also have future plans to open a drop-off site for yard waste materials.

In 2014, Earthbound, and their new business idea for curbside organics recycling, was a top 5 finalist in the Eau Claire Economic Development Corp. Idea Challenge. When owners Zacharious and Jamie Pappas were asked why they decided to create Earthbound, they noted: We were motivated by the many opportunities that exist in our community in terms of participating in environmentally responsible activities, supporting people of varying abilities, taking a more active role in creatively shaping our community. We want to bring an innovative and exciting business to Eau Claire that will change the way our community thinks and feels about waste management and so much more.

Earthbound also has commercial services, offering a compost/garbage/recycling package similar to their residential program, and they can conduct a waste audit for your company. Other services include marketing support to help you connect with clientele with similar environmental values, and support to help you let customers know of your participation in this landfill diversion program.

In terms of community enrichment, the company provides free local educational outreach events where an Earthbound representative will come and speak with your group or organization.

Zacharious and Jamie are excited about the response so far, saying, “We have had a significant amount of positive feedback from Eau Claire residents and businesses with an overwhelming number of individuals in support of the program.”

Rain Barrels: A Win-Win for All

By: Jeannie Voeks

Happy Earth Day Month!  Let’s talk about one simple thing we can do for Mother this year in promoting sustainability.  That is saving her gift of rainwater. There are different reasons to want to do this.

There are Economic reasons as well as Ecologic reasons that saving and using rainwater is beneficial.  For lack of space and in keeping with Earth Day, I am going to focus on the Ecological aspect only.

Eco-logical benefits:

Collecting rain in barrels helps slow runoff and encourages rain to soak into the soil more efficiently, to recharge groundwater supplies and protect sensitive ecosystems.

Overloaded municipal sewer systems can cause untreated sewage to flow to lakes and rivers, thus causing pollution to our valued lakes and rivers.

By saving rainwater from wetter seasons, you’ll have plenty to use without taxing the municipal supply, or your well during the summer, helping out during times of not-so-rainy days.

Eco-facts to consider:

Gardens, trees, bedding and house plants are more likely to flourish when they always receive Mother Nature’s pH-balanced rainwater. What could be more simple and natural?

Have you ever noticed how green a good rain turns lawns and gardens?  This is not just “a good cleaning up” by the rainwater.  The soil is replenished by this natural pH water, nitrogen is delivered to the soil and plants thrive.

Rainwater is a constant renewable resource to Earth because of its continuous production cycle and is very pure due to the water cycle it goes through.  Although there are some similarities between rainwater and tap water, there are also many differences.

Tap water contains contaminants due to the many substances collected in the environment.  These contaminants, such as pesticides, prescription drugs, sewage, bacteria, metals, oil, etc. then need to be filtered out, so it can be used for drinking and cooking.

So WHY is rainwater better than tap water for our plants and lawns?  Well, there are a few reasons…

Simply said, it is what Mother Nature intended.  Rainwater is purer, more easily absorbed because it is naturally soft and free of minerals. This allows for healthier growth.

► Salt exists in the soil naturally. In areas where the water is naturally full of minerals such as calcium and magnesium, sodium (salt) is used in municipal water and in water softeners to soften water to reduce deposit buildup. Too much salt is bad for plants, and as it builds up it starves the roots of water. Rainwater dilutes the salts in the soil and pushes them further down, away from the plant’s root system.

► Municipal water services add a lot of chemicals to the water supply to keep it clean as it flows through pipes. Fluoride and chlorine are very common additives. Fluoride is put into the water in an effort to keep people’s teeth healthy. Chlorine is used to kill off harmful bacteria in the water supply. Both of these chemicals affect the pH of the soil, often making it too acidic for maintaining healthy plants. Rainwater contains neither of these chemicals, having been filtered by evaporation, and is pure.

I hope this has helped you understand the benefits and importanceof harvesting rainwater for your plants, gardens, trees and lawn.

Try rainwater for other uses, too.  You’ll be surprised how much you’ll like it for washing your car, bathing your pet, or washing your own hair…you might find that you wont need to buy conditioner, as rainwater is naturally soft.

Many of us are finding ways to go back to a simpler way of life.  This is one of those smarter, simpler ways that make sense, save money and save on the environment.  Give it a try…oh, and if you do, please remember to choose a rain barrel that is good for the environment and won’t end up in a landfill.  Mother Earth will thank you!

Green Planet Rain Barrels, LLC

715-835-4080

greenplanetrainbarrels@gmail.com

Do the Solar Math

By:  Joe Maurer, Next Step Energy LLC

Why install a solar PV system? You can hedge against rising fuel costs! You can own your energy up front! You can offset your own fossil fuel consumption! You can have energy independence!

You probably have heard some of what a solar PV system can do for you, but what about the costs? What does the math of a solar PV system say? A baseline PV costing exercise usually begins by looking at your kWh/per year usage. Here is a sample exercise you can do at home.At our home business, the energy usage is 8,300 kWh per year. To estimate my PV system size, I will begin by dividing my kWh per year by 1.2. This gives me an estimated PV system size of 6,917 watts or a 6.9kW system. To calculate my installed cost, I multiply the PV system size by the cost per watt for a roof mounted system, which in this case is $4.00. This gives me an installed cost of $27,988. Not exactly chump change, I know. But wait! There is more to this equation.

If I am a rural business owner, I can apply for a 25 percent USDA REAP grant. To figure this amount, I multiply myinstalled cost by 0.25. This puts me at $20,991. If my utility participates with Focus on Energy, I can take an additional $2,400 dollars. This Focus on Energy grant is taxed at 33 percent (-$792), so the cost of the system is now at  $19,383. The federal tax credit is considerable at 30 percent. To calculate this, I simply multiply my installed cost minus the USDA grant by 0.30. This puts me at $14,693.70! I know exciting, right? We are not done—let’s look at depreciation. Depreciation indicates how much of an asset’s value has changed. For tax purposes, businesses can deduct the cost of the tangible assets they purchase as business expenses. To figure depreciation, multiply your installed cost ($27,988) by 0.21. Our net solar system cost is $8,816.22! This isn’t chump change either—but it’s a considerable difference from where we started.

So, what’s the payback time? To calculate this, divide the net solar system cost by the solar energy value in year one and multiply by 1.35. To calculate your solar energy value in year one, multiply your annual electric load by your utility rate. For example, for my solar energy value in year one, I multiply $0.11 x 8,300 to get $913. So to find payback, I divide my net system cost ($8,816.22) by solar energy value ($913) and multiply by 1.35 to give weight to module degradation, property insurance escalation, inverter replacement etc. My payback time is 13 years. Or I could say after 13 years, I make money with my system! System life is expected to last at least 30 years.

Check with your tax professional and solar site assessor to find out if you qualify for solar enegy tax incentives.