Building Healthy Soils in Vegetable Gardens: Cover Crops Have Got It Covered Part II: Types of Cover Crops – Non-legumes, Legumes, and Mixtures

Megan M. Gregory, Blog Contributor, Cover Crop Nerd, and Graduate Research Assistant, Cornell University
Email: meganmgregory1@gmail.com
Website: http://blogs.cornell.edu/gep/

This article is part of a four-part series about cover cropping in vegetable gardens.  Stay tuned for Part III next week. 

Vegetable gardeners are turning to cover crops to improve soil quality, add nitrogen (N) to the soil through legume N fixation, suppress weeds, and attract beneficial insects in their gardens.  In this article I’ll introduce several groups of cover crops.  Cover crop species can be broadly grouped into non-legumes (those that do not fix N, but take up and recycle nutrients left in the soil) and legumes (which fix N).   Mixtures of non-legumes and legumes may offer the benefits of both types of cover crops.

Non-legume cover crops

Non-legume cover crops include species in several plant families:

Fig. 1.  Examples of non-legume cover crops used in vegetable gardens (Photo credits: M. Gregory)
 pic 5  pic 6  pic 7
Fig. 1a.  Oats (Avena sativa) is a winter-kill cover crop in USDA Zones 7 and cooler.  It is usually planted in late August, and dies with the first hard frosts.
Fig. 1b.  Winter rye (Secale cereale) is a hardy over-wintering cover crop.  It can be planted in September or October, and produces large amounts of biomass by May.
Fig. 1 c.  Buckwheat (Fagopyrun esculentum) is a fast-growing summer cover crop, suitable for planting between spring and fall vegetable crops.

Benefits of non-legumes: 1, 2

  • Prevent erosion – Non-legumes establish and grow quickly, provide rapid soil cover, and have dense, fibrous root systems that hold soil in place.
  • Build soil organic matter – Non-legumes produce large amounts of biomass, which contributes to soil organic matter.3
  • Retain and recycle nutrients – Non-legumes take up nutrients left in the soil after vegetable harvest, which prevents them from being leached out of the garden during heavy spring rains.
  • Suppress weeds – With their vigorous growth and high biomass, non-legumes can successfully compete with weeds, even in fertile soils. Some non-legumes (winter rye, sorghum-sudangrass, and Brassicas) also release chemicals that inhibit weed germination and growth.  Residues of grass cover crops also provide a weed-suppressive mulch that lasts much of the growing season.
  • Disease management — Some Brassicaceae cover crops also release chemical compounds that may help control soil-borne pathogens and parasites(e.g., fungi, nematodes) upon incorporation. Winter rapeseed (Brassica napus) greatly reduced Rhizoctonia damage and Verticillium wilt in potato crops.1, 2

Drawbacks and constraints of non-legumes:

  • Slow nutrient supply and/or N immobilization — Non-legumes have lots of carbon (C) relative to N during growth, which causes them to decompose slowly after mowing or incorporation. As a result, nutrients in non-legume residues may not be available to vegetable crops quickly. If non-legume residues are incorporated into the soil, they may actually immobilize (“tie up”) N for a few weeks as decomposer microbes take up soil N to balance the large amount of C in the plant residues they’re breaking down.1  For this reason, it’s best to wait several weeks after incorporating a non-legume before planting vegetable crops.

Legume cover crops

Legume cover crops include field peas (Fig. 2a) crimson clover (Fig. 2b), hairy vetch (Fig. 2c), and cowpeas.  They provide many of the same benefits of non-legumes, with the additional benefits of nitrogen fixation and feeding pollinators.

Fig. 2.  Examples of legume cover crops used in vegetable gardens  (Photo credits: M. Gregory)
 pic 8  pic 9  pic 10
Fig. 2a.  Field peas (Pisum sativum) can be planted as a winter-kill or early spring cover crop.  It should only be planted in full sun, as this legume performs poorly in shaded areas.4 Fig. 2b.Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) over-winters in Zones 7 and up, and can be used as a summer or winter-kill cover crop in cooler zones.  Crimson clover is a high biomass producer and is quite shade-tolerant.4 Fig. 2c.  Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) is the hardiest legume, and will over-winter in even the northernmost parts of the US.  It is an excellent legume for adding fixed N to the soil.4

 

Additional Benefits of legumes:

pic 11
Figure 3. A bumblebee visits a crimson clover flower in a community garden. Photo credit: M. Gregory.
  • Nitrogen fixation – Legume cover crops add ‘new’ nitrogen (N) to the soil through N fixation, which occurs when N-fixing bacteria in legume roots take N from the air and convert it to a form the plant can use. When legume residues break down, this N is added to the soil for food crops.5
  • Build soil organic matter and soil quality – While legumes don’t usually produce as much biomass as non-legumes, they also help build soil organic matter.6, 7 Legumes are also excellent soil conditioners, because legume roots ooze sugars that stick soil particles together in larger crumbs, or aggregates.8, 9  This helps the particles fit together loosely, making for a soft, porous soil.
  • Attract beneficial insects – Many legume species provide resources for beneficial insects. Crimson clover provides pollen and nectar for native pollinator bees (Fig. 3), and both crimson clover and hairy vetch host predators such as lady beetles, which eat many pest insects.1

 

Drawbacks and constraints of legumes: 1, 3

  • Slow growth, lower biomass — Legumes establish and grow more slowly than non-legumes, and usually produce lower biomass.
  • Less weed suppression — Legumes may not suppress weeds as effectively as non-legumes, particularly in soils with high N fertility. In Brooklyn gardens, legumes suppressed weeds in soils with low to moderate N fertility, but not in soils with high N fertility.4  Legume residues break down quickly, so weed control by legume mulch may be short-lived.
  • Seed cost — Legume seeds are more costly than non-legumes.

 

Cover crop mixtures

Mixtures of non-legumes and legumes often combine the benefits of both types of cover crops.

Benefits of nonlegume/legume mixtures:

  • Produce large biomass and suppress weeds effectively — In many cases, cover crop mixtures provide more complete soil cover, greater biomass production, and more effective weed suppression than plantings of just one species.1, 3  This is because mixtures of grasses and legumes use water, nutrients and sunlight very efficiently due to complementary root systems and growth habits.  Grasses (like rye) also provide support for viny legumes (like hairy vetch), which allows the legume to access more light.
  • Increase N fixation — Planting legumes with grasses may enhance N fixation. Grasses out-compete legumes for soil N, forcing the legume to rely on N fixation.  As long as the grass doesn’t suppress legume biomass (see below), this can increase the total amount of N fixed.  Promising grass/legume mixtures for N fixation include rye/vetch and Japanese millet/cowpea.10
  • Optimize nutrient cycling and nutrient supply to crops — Mixtures provide the benefits of N ‘scavenging’ by non-legumes and N additions by legumes.1 At maturity, grass-legume mixtures often have an ideal C:N ratio of 25:1 – 30:1, which promotes a steady release of N for vegetable crop use as the cover crop plants decompose.  N-rich legume residues prevent N tie-up that can occur when incorporating pure grass residues, while C-rich grass residues slow the breakdown of legume residues such that N is released at a rate that vegetable crops can use through the growing season.2, 11
Fig. 4.  Examples of grass/legume mixtures used in vegetable gardens  (Photo credits: M. Gregory)
 pic 12  pic 13
 Fig. 4a.  Oats/ Field peas is a common winter-kill or early spring mixture.  It should only be planted in full sun.  Since oats may suppress field pea biomass and total N fixed,4 try seeding the field peas at a higher rate. Fig. 4b.  Rye/ hairy vetch is an excellent over-wintering mixture.  The hairy vetch ‘climbs’ the rye, which allows the legume to access more light.  In Brooklyn gardens, rye/vetch mixtures produced the highest biomass of any cover crop combination.4

Drawbacks and constraints of nonlegume/legume mixtures:

  • Reduced N fixation if nonlegume out-competes the legume – Mixing a non-legume with a legume may decrease the total amount of N fixed if the non-legume suppresses legume growth and biomass. This occurs in mixtures of: oats/field peas,4, 12 rye/crimson clover,4 and sorghum-sudangrass/cowpea.10  Seeding the legume at a higher rate may result in a more even distribution of nonlegume and legume biomass – gardeners can experiment to find the relative seeding rate that works best in your soil.

 

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Understanding the benefits and limitations of non-legumes, legumes, and mixtures is a great starting point for selecting cover crops to plant in your garden.  For guidance on choosing specific cover crops based on your vegetable crop rotation, management goals, and soil and light conditions, see Part III: Selecting Cover Crops for Vegetable Gardens.

 

References

(1) Clark, A.  2007.  Managing cover crops profitably, 3rd ed. Sustainable Agriculture Network, Beltsville, MD.  Accessed online at: http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition, 7 December 2014.

(2) Treadwell, D., N. Creamer, and K. Baldwin.  2010.  An introduction to cover crop species in organic farming systems.  Accessed online at: https://www.extension.org/pages/18542/an-introduction-to-cover-crop-species-for-organic-farming-systems, 7 December 2014.

(3) Snapp, S. S., S. M. Swinton, R. Labarta, D. Mutch, J. R. Black, R. Leep, J. Nyiraneza, and K. O’Neil.  2005.  Evaluating cover crops for benefits, costs and performance within cropping system niches.  Agronomy Journal 97(1):322-332.

(4) Gregory, M. M., L. E. Drinkwater.  In preparation.  Developing cover cropping practices to improve soil quality, nutrient cycling, and weed suppression in urban community gardens.

(5) Drinkwater, L. E.  2011.  It’s elemental: How legumes bridge the nitrogen gap.  The Natural Farmer, Summer 2011, pp. B-1 – B-6.  Northeast Organic Farming Association, Barre, MA: Accessed online at: http://www.nofa.org/tnf/Summer2011B.pdf, 6 December 2014.

(6) Sainju, U. M., B. P. Singh, and W. F. Whitehead.  2002.  Long-term effects of tillage, cover crops, and nitrogen fertilization on organic carbon and nitrogen concentrations in sandy loam soils in Georgia, USA.  Soil & Tillage Research 63(3-4):167-179.

(7) Kong, A. Y. Y., J. Six, D. C. Bryant, R. F. Denison, and C. van Kessel.  2005.  The relationship between carbon input, aggregation, and soil organic carbon stabilization in sustainable cropping systems.  Soil Science Society of America Journal 69(4):1078-1085.

(8) Puget, P., L. E. Drinkwater.  2001.  Short-term dynamics of root- and shoot-derived carbon from a leguminous green manure.  Soil Science Society of America Journal 65(3):771-779.

(9) Haynes, R. J., M. H. Beare.  1997.  Influence of six crop species on aggregate stability and some labile organic matter fractions.  Soil Biology & Biochemistry 29(11-12):1647-1653.

(10) Drinkwater, L. E.  2011.  A holistic view: Leguminous cover crop management in organic farming systems.  The Natural Farmer, Summer 2011, pp. B-20 – B-24.  Northeast Organic Farming Association: Barre, MA. Accessed online at: http://www.nofa.org/tnf/Summer2011B.pdf, 6 December 2014.

(11) Teasdale, J. R., A. A. Abdul-Baki.  1998.  Comparison of mixtures vs. monocultures of cover crops for fresh-market tomato production with and without herbicide.  HortScience 33(7):1163-1166.

(12) Schipanski, M. E., L. E. Drinkwater.  2012.  Nitrogen fixation in annual and perennial legume-grass mixtures across a fertility gradient.  Plant Soil 357(1-2):147-159.

 

Garden Site Selection

Shawn Banks: Extension Blog Contributor
Johnston County Extension Agent/Educator
North Carolina State University
shawn_banks@ncsu.edu

As an extension agent one question I often get asked by new gardeners is, “Where do I put a vegetable garden in my yard?” That leads to a lot more questions, but let’s answer the where question first. There are four basic considerations when selecting a garden site.

narrow strip of garden vegetables in a backyard area

The first thing to consider is the need for direct or full sunlight. Most vegetables need a minimum of six to eight hours in order to produce a crop. However, the more sunlight they get the more bounteous the harvest will be. If there isn’t a spot in the yard that receives full sun all day, then the question becomes, is it better to have shade in the morning or in the evening? Morning sun will dry the dew from the leaves, reducing the chance of fungal diseases infecting the leaves.

person watering vegetable garden with a hoseSpeaking of dew, the next consideration is water. How close is the water source to the vegetable garden. Many vegetables need to have consistent moisture. That means a water source should be easy to access to keep the soil moist throughout the growing season. The further the water is from the garden, the less likely it is that the garden will get watered on a regular basis. Have you ever wondered why the tomatoes crack, or the radishes split? One of the most common reasons is that the soil was very dry and then it rained a lot and the plant was trying to store as much water as possible, causing the cracks and splits

Raised beds with vegetables growing in themAnother consideration is airflow. Many foliar diseases are caused by fungal pathogens. Most fungi need water standing on the leaf for eight or more hours before they can infect the leaf. Good airflow will dry the leaves out before the fungi can infect the plant. A hedge, a solid fence, or even a house may obstruct airflow. Another way to obstruct airflow is to plant too close together, but that is a discussion for another time.

A trellis in the back of a raised bed supports peasLastly comes the phrase “out of sight, out of mind”. This is very true for a vegetable garden. When selecting where to place the garden, consider ease of access. Many people find that when the garden is way in the backyard, they don’t tend it often enough. The soil dries out. The weeds take over. The crops don’t get harvested in a timely manner. In short, the garden doesn’t succeed. Select a garden site that is close enough that you will see it and want to tend to it.

These four site characteristics are the most important when selecting the location for a vegetable garden. Remember, a vegetable garden site needs a minimum of eight hours of direct sunlight, consistent moisture, good airflow, and easy access. A site with all four of these characteristics will ultimately produce more, have fewer problems with fungal diseases, and be better taken care of because it is visited more frequently and loved.

Keep in mind that if you don’t have anywhere in your yard that works, many options, such as container gardens, can help you have a productive garden anywhere.

Garden Site Selection pdf

Building Healthy Soils in Vegetable Gardens: Cover Crops Have Got It Covered Part I: Introduction to Cover Cropping

Megan M. Gregory, Blog Contributor, Cover Crop Nerd, and Graduate Research Assistant, Cornell University
Email: meganmgregory1@gmail.com
Website: http://blogs.cornell.edu/gep/

This article is part of a four-part series about cover cropping in vegetable gardens. Stay tuned next week for Part II

What are cover crops, anyway?

cover crop
Figure 1. Rye and vetch cover crop in a community garden plot in May, just before it was cut down and mulched in preparation for planting vegetables. Photo credit: M. Gregory. 

Cover crops are close-growing plants sown in rotation with food crops, or inter-seeded between food crops to cover bare ground.  They are not harvested, but rather are planted to improve soil quality and provide other benefits for crop production and the environment.  Before planting the next vegetable crop, most cover crops need to be cut down.  The shoots can be chopped (or mowed) and left as mulch on the soil surface, or incorporated into the soil.

There is a large body of research supporting the use of cover crops on organic and sustainable farms.1  However, vegetable gardeners can successfully plant and manage cover crops with hand tools, and reap the benefits of this practice for their soil and crops.2

Why should I plant a crop that I’m not going to harvest?

Cover crops provide many benefits for future vegetable crop production, and for the garden agro-ecosystem as a whole.  Incorporating cover crops in vegetable rotations may:

  • Increase soil organic matter levels, and therefore improve soil quality. As cover crop roots and shoots decompose, they build soil organic matter.  This improves soil structure and water-holding capacity (Fig. 2), and increases slow-release nutrient reserves.3  Fresh cover crop residues also nourish beneficial soil fauna (bacteria, fungi, worms, etc.) that improve soil tilth and aeration, recycle plant and animal wastes, and release nutrients for crops to use.
  • Provide nitrogen for future food crops through legume nitrogen fixation. Cover crops in the legume family (e.g., beans, peas, clovers, and vetches) add “new” nitrogen (N) to the soil.  Legumes host N-fixing bacteria in bumps on their roots, also called nodules (Fig. 3).  These bacteria take N from the air and convert it to a form the legume can use .  When the plant decomposes, the fixed N also becomes part of the soil organic matter.  Eventually, this N is released by microbes for crop uptake.4
  • Improve nutrient retention and recycling. Over-wintering cover crops take up extra nutrients at the end of the growing season, which would otherwise be lost to leaching (when nutrients dissolve in rainwater and drain below the root zone, making the nutrients unavailable for plants).  Over-wintering grasses like rye reduce N leaching by about 70% compared to bare soil.5
  • Suppress weeds. Growing cover crops reduce weed growth through competition (e.g., for space, light, moisture, and nutrients) and allelopathy (releasing chemicals that inhibit other plants).  After , the cover crop mulch can prevent weed seedling emergence through the growing season.6
  • Attract beneficial insects. Cover crops often provide important resources (such as nectar and pollen and over-wintering habitat) for beneficial insects, including pollinator bees and natural enemies of insect pests like ladybugs and lacewing.1
  • Increase or maintain crop yields with less inputs. Well-managed cover crops can improve vegetable crop yields, or reduce the amount of fertilizer needed to obtain good yields.7-10

 

pic 2
Figure 2. Demonstration illustrating the effect of soil organic matter (SOM) on water-holding capacity. Photo credit: Megan Gregory
  • On the left is soil from an urban garden that received a rye/vetch cover crop for more than five years, and therefore has high SOM.
  • On the right is soil from a garden that never received cover crops, and has lower SOM.
  • This photo was taken 30 minutes after pouring equal amounts of water through the soils. The high-OM soil held most of the water, while much water drained through the low-OM soil. Since both soils were of similar texture, the difference in water-holding capacity can be attributed to the SOM.

 

 

 

nodules on roots of cover crops
Figure 3. Nodules on the roots of legume cover crops: crimson clover (left) and hairy vetch (right). The nodules host nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the genus Rhizobia, which convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant-available forms. Photo credits: M. Gregory.

pic 3

 

 

 

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Vegetable gardeners have a number of cover crop options suited to different seasonal niches, management goals, and environmental conditions.  To learn about the main groups of cover crops and how to select cover crops for your garden, see Part II (Types of Cover Crops) and Part III (Selecting Cover Crops).

References

(1) Clark, A.  2007.  Managing cover crops profitably, 3rd ed. Sustainable Agriculture Network, Beltsville, MD.  Accessed online at: http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition, 7 December 2014.

(2) Gregory, M. M. and L. E. Drinkwater.  In preparation.  Developing cover cropping practices to improve soil quality, nutrient cycling, and weed suppression in urban community gardens.

(3) Snapp, S. S., S. M. Swinton, R. Labarta, D. Mutch, J. R. Black, R. Leep, J. Nyiraneza, and K. O’Neil.  2005.  Evaluating cover crops for benefits, costs and performance within cropping system niches.  Agronomy Journal 97(1):322-332.

(4) Drinkwater, L. E.  2011.  It’s elemental: How legumes bridge the nitrogen gap.  The Natural Farmer, Summer 2011, pp. B-1 – B-6.  Northeast Organic Farming Association, Barre, MA.  Accessed online at: http://www.nofa.org/tnf/Summer2011B.pdf, 6 December 2014.

(5) Tonitto, C., M. B. David, and L. E. Drinkwater.  2006.  Replacing bare fallows with cover crops in fertilizer-intensive cropping systems: A meta-analysis of crop yield and N dynamics.  Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment 112(1):58-72.

(6) Schonbeck, M.  2011.  How cover crops suppress weeds.  Accessed online at: https://www.extension.org/pages/18524/how-cover-crops-suppress-weeds, 6 December 2014.

(7) Abdul-Baki, A. A., J. R. Teasdale, R. Korcak, D. J. Chitwood, and R. N. Huettel.  1996.  Fresh-market tomato production in a low-input alternative system using cover-crop mulch.  HortScience 31(1):65-69.

(8) Abdul-Baki, A. A., J. R. Stommel, A. E. Watada, J. R. Teasdale, and R. D. Morse.  1996.  Hairy vetch mulch favorably impacts yield of processing tomatoes.  HortScience 31(3):338-340.

(9) Abdul-Baki, A. A., J. R. Teasdale, R. W. Goth, and K. G. Haynes.  2002.  Marketable yields of fresh-market tomatoes grown in plastic and hairy vetch mulches.  HortScience 37(6):878-881.

(10) Abdul-Baki, A. A., J. R. Teasdale.  1997.  Snap bean production in conventional tillage and in no-till hairy vetch mulch.  HortScience 32(7):1191-1193.

Prepping Your Garden for The Next Growing Season

William H. McCaleb, Blog Contributor
Program Assistant for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Halifax County, VA. and Master Gardener

For gardeners in the eastern U.S., last year was a better than normal gardening season. Better than normal yield, better than normal precipitation, and in our case in Virginia cooler than normal which yielded excellent spring cool season crops as well as early summer crops.

But all good things must come to an end; that being the result of several heavy frosts.   With that said, I am looking forward to next year’s challenges and what I want to grow for our family. Oh, for the taste of one more summer ripened tomato, but for now, that is a dream and it is time to reflect on what grew well in the garden as well as what didn’t do so well.  Hopefully you have kept a garden journal to help you in this task. I find that writing down details of what is planted, the orientation, spacing, fertilization/liming rates and frequency, weekly rainfall amounts, production amounts, etc. is helpful as you start planning for the next season.

Like me, you should start thinking about what you want to grow in 2015. Take time to reflect on your 2014 garden production, care, and location. Also, evaluate what went right and what went wrong with the plants and varieties you planted and harvested. This will start you off in the right frame of mind in preparing for the next growing season. Good planning and preparation for next year gives you the tools to have an even better gardening season. A successful vegetable gardener is a happy well fed gardener!

I know, you too are already missing those fresh tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, squash, okra, and other great home grown vegetables we treated ourselves to this year, but the next season is ‘just around the corner’ so to speak. After all the days are getting a little longer. Spring can’t be far away!

If you just happen to live in an area that hasn’t had frost yet, take your prompt from your plants: when annuals and seasonal vegetables turn brown and begin to die back, it is time to clean up your garden.

Clean up the Garden
Your best action is to remove any spent or failing plant materials. Experienced gardeners know that many of the bacteria, fungi, and other disease-causing organisms that caused those diseases. Pathogens that are sources of those diseased plants this past season can survive over the winter in dead leaves, stems, roots, and dropped fruits that get left in the garden. Much like a piece of bread that is kept too long and looks like it has penicillin growing on it, garden debris also will carry the pathogens that can come alive with those same problems when the temperatures begin to rise in the spring. Prevention of diseases and insect infestation now, will keep you from a repeat of problems in next year’s garden.

A good leaf rake, given enough ‘elbow grease’, works well in getting the bulk of dead plant material out of your garden. If you experienced early or late blight or other tomato related diseases this past growing season, you want to make sure you reduce, to the best of your ability, the risk of repeating that problem again next year. Yes, there are many new varieties of vegetables available today that are ‘resistant’ to some of these diseases, but ‘resistant’ does not mean they are immune to them. You don’t want to take the chance of returning pathogens, so do a good job, cleaning and ‘sanitizing’ your garden now. Make sure, when removing the plant debris, that you totally destroy that debris so that no pathogens are left behind.

To Compost or Not!
Can you compost this dead plant material and use it next spring? Information that you find from Extension offices across the U.S. will recommend that you do not. The reason being is that most people do passive composting i.e. put it in a pile, and then using what compost develops, put the compost back in the garden for the next season. It is best to burn the plant material; this will destroy the pathogens and weed seeds as well and return some carbon back into the ground when you spread it out. Please check local/state laws prior to burning. Many states and/or localities have burn bans especially this time of the year. Another method, if your local law allows it you can bag the material and send it to the landfill. Each year there are more localities that ban yard waste from their landfills. If you are not sure, check with your locality to learn more about your local waste and recycling laws.

If you do decide to go with active composting; composting at a temperature 140°F, or higher, will destroy many of the disease organisms as well as many weed seeds. You will need a temperature probe to monitor compost temperatures.   It’s really not hard to source a compost thermometer either through the internet or local retail outlets such as garden centers or nursery supply stores. If in doubt about your compost pile reaching these high temperatures, it is best to side with caution and discard the material by properly bagging it or by burning based on your local ordinances.

Preventing Overwintering Pathogens
Some of our most notorious insects of the garden such as Mexican bean beetle, squash vine borers, European corn borer, cabbage loopers, can also overwinter in garden debris. Larvae will use debris as a safe harbor. Flea beetles and spider mites, as well, can find food and winter shelter in spent plant material and weeds.

After you have finished cleaning up the debris from your garden, it is time to turn over the soil to both aerate and break up any remaining debris into smaller pieces that will be turned under. A good rototiller will help make this job easier. Once buried, any plant material left will decompose more rapidly.

For some pests and pathogens, turning over the soil after removing spent plant materials is recommended as the main line of defense against overpopulation next year. Consider this information from “Home and Horticultural Pests: Squash Bugs and Squash Vine Borers,” from Kansas State University,

“A vigorous autumn… rototilling can physically destroy cocoons and larvae (of the squash vine borer). Brought to the surface, cocoons and larvae are more susceptible to predation by birds and exposed to cold winter elements, leading to their demise. Deep plowing physically destroys cocoons and larvae burying them deep beneath the soil surface so pupated moths become entombed underground.”

Steps to a Healthier Garden
If you haven’t done a soil test in three years or more, it is time to retest and determine the needs of your garden soils based on what you will be growing in the next season. Soil test kits and instructions are available from your local Extension Office. Also, in planning next year’s garden, rotation of your crops is a must do item. This simple action will help keep disease issues down.  If your soil test(s) recommend liming, you can go ahead and put down lime this time of year, allowing it to start adjusting the pH. If the ground is frozen already, wait until spring. As you add lime, you can also help build soil structure by incorporating compost or shredded leaves. These soil additives will also add beneficial micro-nutrients and beneficial organisms. If you want to further build the soil, you may want to consider putting in a cover crop that will not only hold soil, but when tilled in early spring, will further build a healthier garden soil. A legume such as white or red clover would be something to consider. Check with your local Extension Office for best cover crop recommendations for your area.

Prepping Your Garden for the Next Growing Season (pdf)

 References:

http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-334/426-334.html
http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/pubs/mf2508.pdf

image sisters
“Three Sister’s Garden-Fall Clean-up “Southern Virginia Botanical Gardens” Photo by W. McCaleb 10/28/14 Corn, Beans, and Squash was grown here as the native Cherokee have done for centuries. Cleaned up and ready for spring 2015!

 

 

 

Nanomechanical oscillations…

This week one of our Facebook group members posted a link to a 2013 paper entitled “Love thy neighbour: facilitation through an alternative signalling modality in plants”. The premise in the paper is that plants are capable of acoustic communication and the experiment purported to demonstrate this. (I strongly encourage you to download the article from the link above so you can read it for yourself.)

chilisBriefly, chile seeds (Capsicum annuum) were placed into petri dishes, covered to ensure darkness, and then the dishes were placed in a circle. In the middle of the circle was either an empty acrylic box covered in black plastic (the control), an acrylic box covered in black plastic containing an adult basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) called the masked treatment, or an adult basil plant without a box (the open treatment). Seeds were watered and inspected daily for germination and the petri dishes were randomly rearranged.

According to the authors, “the presence of basil positively enhanced germination rates of chilli seeds, validating the claims of many gardeners who recognise the beneficial effect of basil on the growth of chilli plants.” Their reasoning is that the open and masked treatments induced more seed germination than the control. And since there was little difference between the masked and open treatments, they claim that the phenomenon is due to some signal other than light or gas (since the black plastic-covered acrylic container would prevent this).

How does this work? Well, according to the authors, this is evidence that acoustic signals are “generated in plants by biochemical processes within the cell, where nanomechanical oscillations of various components in the cytoskeleton can produce a spectrum of vibrations.” Never mind that the experimental design and methodology was laden with opportunities for experimental error. In particular, opening the petri dishes to water and count germinated seeds every day is deeply flawed. The easiest and least error-prone method would be to have the petri dishes sealed with parafilm to prevent water loss and inspected ONLY after the experiment was over. That is the standard method for testing for germination rates. Moreover, opening the dishes to count and water seeds every day really screws up the “covered to ensure darkness” part. In fact, chile seeds germinate better with light – which is what they got every day when they were opened. Was each dish exposed to light for exactly the same time every day? Exposure to light converts the seeds’ phytochrome to what’s called the active form, and phytochrome plays a crucial role in seed germination. The longer the light exposure, the more phytochrome is converted.

Now, plant scientists would know these things when they were designing their experiments. But as neither of the authors have degrees in plant sciences, it’s understandable. What’s not understandable is how this article got through peer-review. Unless none of the reviewers were plant scientists, either.

For those of you that belong to a university journal club or some other science discussion group, I think this would be a great article to discuss.

Harvesting, Curing and Storing Sweet Potatoes (A Visiting Professor feature)

Submitted by Ray Eckhart

Introduction
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are warm-season plants in the morning glory family (Convulvulaceae). The part we eat is the fleshy storage root of the plant, which is a little different than the regular Irish, or white, potato (Solanum tuberosum), a plant in the family Solanaceae. In that case, the part we eat is a fleshy underground stem of the plant, called a tuber.

Although sweet potato roots continue to grow until frost kills the vines, an extremely hard frost can cause damage to the ones near the surface. Chilling injury also results when soil temperatures drop to 50°F or lower, and this can result in internal decay in storage. The greatest danger from delayed digging is the risk of cold, wet soil encouraging decay. So the best time to dig is around the time of first frost in your area, or shortly thereafter. The vines can be clipped approximately 5 days before digging to improve skin-set or reduce the incidence of skinning the roots during harvest. To avoid exceptionally large sweet potatoes, a few hills should be dug in advance of the anticipated harvest date to determine the size of the sweet potato roots.

Puerto RicoFreshly dug sweet potato ‘Puerto Rico’

You can cook newly dug sweet potatoes right away, but their flavor, color and storage quality is greatly improved by curing at warm temperatures immediately after harvest. It is during the curing process that starch is converted to sugar.

Cure sweet potatoes by holding them for about 10 days at 80-85°F and high relative humidity (85-90 percent). Commercial producers have temperature and humidity controlled housing to guarantee good results, but for the home grower, they can be cured near a furnace or heat source to provide the necessary warmth. If the temperature near your furnace is between 65-75°F, the curing period should last 2-3 weeks. To maintain the required high humidity (85-90 percent relative humidity), stack storage crates or boxes and cover them with paper or heavy cloth.

CuringSweet potatoes curing

Once the sweet potatoes are cured, move them to a dark location where a temperature of about 55-60°F can be maintained, like an unheated basement, or root cellar. Sweet potatoes are subject to chilling injury, so don’t refrigerate them. Outdoor pits are not recommended for storage because the dampness encourages decay. Good results can be obtained by wrapping cured sweet potatoes in newspaper and storing them in a cool closet. Sweet potatoes can also be stored in sand.

Ornamental Sweet Potatoes
Have you ever wondered what, if any, is the difference between the ornamental sweet potato vines grown as a season-long ground cover, or, as “spillers” in container arrangements, and the vegetable we grow as food? The answer is – not much. They are just different cultivars of the same plant species, Ipomoea batatas. The ones we grow for food are selected and bred to produce large, uniform, good tasting roots, high in nutrients for eating, whereas the ones we grow ornamentally are selected for the striking shapes and colors of their leaves. Plant breeders introduce new variations every year. If you dig up the earth around your ornamental vines, you’ll find the same fleshy roots (different colors, perhaps) as the familiar ones we grow, or buy, for food. So, can you eat them? Well, technically, yes – but there’s no guarantee how they’ll taste. Most ornamental varieties are pretty bland. However, if you dig, cure, and store them as above, it’s possible they can stay viable until spring, when you can try to continue their growth for another season.

PropagationPropagating new plants (called slips) the following spring

References:
http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0804.htm
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/bulbs/bulbbasics.cfm
http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/ornamental-sweetpotatoes-for-the-home-landscape.pdf

Ray Eckhart is a former Penn State Extension Educator and avid home vegetable grower, with a weakness, bordering on obsession, for home grown tomatoes.

Infographic with a BIG grain of salt

Infographics can be great: They’re bright colorful ways to make sometimes complex concepts visual and easy to understand. Sadly, “easy to understand” does not necessarily equal “accurate” and they can also be extremely misleading.

Take this beautifully made image from National Geographic. It is an older image — first posted back in 2011, but it makes the rounds on social media from time to time, and popped up in my facebook newsfeed a couple days ago.

Look at it! Oh no! We’re loosing all of our vegetable genetic diversity!

Or not. First, it is comparing apples to oranges. This image looks a commercially available varieties in 1903 and compares it to the number of varieties in one specific center for preserving genetic diversity. What happens if we compare the same metric? If you look at the number of varieties in the National Seed Storage Laboratory, that was founded in 1958… so in 1903, at the top of the graph, the number for all these vegetables would be… zero. If you look at the present day, the current umbrella organization for all the US government funded efforts to preserve genetic diversity of crop plants is GRIN, (Germplasm Resources Information Network)  and if I do a quick search through that database using the keyword “tomato” I get… 9281 results. That is a pretty overwhelming improvement over 79 in 1983.

And what about commercially available varieties? To use tomato as an example again, in 1903, they found 408 varieties offered commercially. I just added up the varieties listed by just ONE seed company, Baker Creek Seeds, currently lists 287 different varieties of tomatoes. That is just ONE company. I have no doubt that if I added up all the varieties that are offered for sale in the giant pile of seed catalogs I get every spring it would be FAR more than the 408 on offer in 1903.

So… are we losing genetic diversity in our crop plants? Probably. There are lots of traditional varieties and land races that were never available commercially that have do doubt been lost, but to be honest, I think we’ve done a pretty good job at preserving the diversity. And certainly the USDA’s system of gene banks is an incredibly well run, impressive thing that deserves high praise indeed, for not merely preserving vast amounts of important genetic diversity but also working hard to characterize it and make it available to researchers and breeders so it can actually be put to work in the development of new and improved selections to try and feed the world.

So despite how colorful and easy to understand this infographic is, you don’t need to freak out about a massive loss of genetic diversity in our vegetable crops. Save that freaking out for all the wild species that have gone extinct or are about to go extinct thanks to habitat destruction and climate change world wide…