The recent assassination attempt England, interesting and significant geopolitically, has reminded me about one of my favorite Latin plant names. A report on the radio stated that atropine therapy is used to treat the specific poison involved in the attempt. To paraphrase Dr. Randy Pausch, “I’m a doctor, but not the kind who helps people.” Therefore, I have no authority on the medical uses of atropine. The world Health Organization lists it as a preoperative anesthetic on its list of essential medicines, so it must be pretty important.
But I do like horticulture and I like words. That’s where my interests lie in relation to this story. Many medicines are or have been plant-based. Atropine itself comes from certain plants in the nightshade family. Like any chemical people use, dosage of atropine determines its effects; atropine can be medically useful, or it can be deadly. The drug is named after a specific plant from which atropine can be obtained, Atropa belladonna. The omnibotanist Linnaeus named it in 1753 (can someone come up with a better word for him than ‘omnibotanist?’).
‘Belladonna,’ as it’s commonly called, is a small shrub native to Europe and Asia. ‘Belladonna’ comes from the Italian words ‘bella’ and ‘donna,’ meaning ‘beautiful woman.’ An extract from the plant was applied topically to eyes during the Renaissance to dilate pupils. One sign of sexual arousal is dilated pupils, so the extract would cause a response that looked like sexual arousal. If you were a lady going to a fancy party during the Renaissance and you wanted to look beautiful, belladonna may have helped (according to beauty standards of the time). My optometrist told me atropine isn’t used for retinal exams today because its effects last too long.
The other common name for Atropa belladonna is ‘deadly nightshade.’ The drug, atropine, is made of two isomers of hyoscyamine, made by the plant (and some other related plants). At some doses, hyoscyamine causes muscles to relax (like the iris, for example) due to its effects on nerves that control muscles. At larger doses, it can kill because you need muscles to breathe and to pump blood at a reasonable rate. Dosage and route of entry are important!
So Atropa belladonna was used to make ladies beautiful, hence the epithet ‘belladonna.’ But what about ‘Atropa?’ What’s that mean? Where does the drug atropine ultimately get its name? My favorite book as a kid was “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.” Linneaus borrowed from the Greek myth of the three Fates in order to name deadly nightshade. According to D’Aulaires, these goddesses of destiny “…knew the past and the future, and even Zeus had no power to sway their decisions.” Nobody can escape fate. The three fates were named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. The fates are responsible for the thread of everybody’s life. Clotho spins the thread at birth, Lachesis measures it out and determines destiny (what’s on the thread and how long it is), and Atropos (‘inflexible’ or ‘unturnable’) cuts the thread after Lachesis has apportioned it. Atropos is the goddess directly responsible for the end of everyone’s thread of life, and her action is final.
Atropa belladonna simultaneously means something like ‘inevitable, inflexible death’ AND ‘beautiful lady.’ Indeed, the dose makes the poison.
By Visiting Professors Dr. Charlie Rohwer and Ulrike Carlson
I’ve had this dream of doing a full academic etymological study of oranges, with the help of a second-cousin-by-marriage linguist and her historian husband. Being honest with myself, I know that’ll never happen. And also, honestly, they’d have to do all the work anyway.
But, the Garden Professor’s Facebook post about the citrus family tree revived my interest. Not for a full-blown academic analysis of the word ‘orange,’ but for a blog-friendly, factual, interesting post. So I got my linguist cousin Ulrike Carlson to edit for accuracy too.
The name given to the orange by Linnaeus was Citrus aurantium, and the only other citrus species he noted in his first volume of Species Plantarum was Citrus medica. The current taxonomy of citron is Citrus medica L., and bitter orange (or Seville orange, used for marmalade and Belgian beer) is Citrus aurantium L. According to Linnaeus, sweet orange and pomelo were separate varieties of C. aurantium (var. sinensis and var. grandis, respectively). For a pretty image of the family tree, see the National Geographic article here. Basically, it is now known that all common citrus fruits are hybrids derived from citron, mandarin, pomelo, and papeda.
The current taxonomy for sweet orange, Citrus sinensis (L.) Osbeck, clearly defines the fruit’s Eastern origin (sinensis comes from Latin for ‘Chinese’) and altered nomenclature (Osbeck refined Linnaeus’ original taxonomy). But the name given to bitter orange, C. aurantium, points to its South Asian origin, and here’s why. The Tamil (south India) word for orange transliterates to ārañcu; Sanskrit words look similar; the Persian nārang is derived from there. As the bitter and sweet orange hybrids were likely made somewhere between Northern India and Southern China, it would be expected that the European names for these fruits come from these or nearby areas too. The origin of Linnaeus’ aurantium are obvious. Aurantium is Latin for the orange tree, and aurancia is the fruit. If you say these words aloud, they all sound similar to each other, to nārang, and to the English orange.
But here’s where it gets more interesting, with a preface: the word apple has historically been used to describe any fruit that’s not a small berry. Also, bitter oranges were common in Europe before sweet oranges. In fact, when sweet oranges came on the scene in the 17th century, wealthy people built greenhouses or gardens (“orangeries”) specifically for the new, more delicious versions of the fruit.
Orangery at the Château_de_Versailles
By Djampa – Own work
My first time in the Netherlands, I noticed orange juice is called sinaasapelsap. I don’t know Dutch really, but…doesn’t that mean ‘Chinese apple juice?’ Sinaas: Chinese (sinensis); apel: apple; sap: …sap (juice)? I knew in French that it’s jus d’orange (juice of the orange), and I knew ‘orange’ in Spanish is naranja (looks & sounds a lot like orange and narang). Why would the Dutch call it Chinese apple juice? Fast forward a couple years, I’m in Denmark, and what do I see? Appelsinsaft. CHINESE APPLE JUICE…English, Dutch, Danish, they’re all Germanic languages. Shouldn’t the Germanic languages call it orange juice, like I do? Then it hits me. English is the odd duck here. The Germanic languages call orange juice ‘Chinese apple juice’. This reflects the name Linnaeus gave the sweet orange (var. sinensis, or ‘Chinese’). Best I can tell, among Germanic languages, only English, Afrikaans, and Scots gets their word for the sweet orange from the older word for the bitter orange, nārang.
That’s not the last word on the subject though. You can go to Italy for sweet oranges and get arance, the Czech Republic and get pomeranče (apple-orange), Ireland and get oráistí, Bulgaria and get oranzhev, or Portugal and get laranjas (aka, oranges). All words that come from nārang or aurancia. You can go to Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Germany and get some kind of Chinese apples (aka, oranges). But even as most Italians eat arance, you’d instead ask for a partuallu in Sicily. Or you’d eat a portokáli in Greece, portokall in Albania, etc. The Portuguese, with their awesome shipping routes, imported sweet oranges from China, then grew and distributed them through Europe in the 17th century. They were a big improvement over the bitter orange (which would you rather have, marmalade from a bitter orange, or a juicy sweet orange?). So some countries called the sweet orange by the name of the proximal country they were shipped from, Portugal. Bitter oranges (AKA Seville oranges, named from where they were grown) are called pomerans (from apple-orange) in Swedish, Pomeranzen or Bitterorangen in German, pomeransen in Dutch…so it seems that when sweet oranges came to Germanic-speaking countries, the languages kept the word they’d been using for the bitter orange (calling it an orange-apple or bitter orange), and added a different word for the sweet orange, calling it a Chinese apple. This is all complicated because political boundaries have changed a lot in Europe, and languages borrow from each other. So northern Germans might still eat Chinese apples, but southern Germans might eat oranges.
Also, if you’re interested and you’ve made it this far, the color orange is so named because that’s the color of the fruit. It’s not the other way around. It’s a pretty recent color descriptor. That’s why robins, with their orange breasts, are called robin red-breast. There was no word for the color orange when the robin was first described.
Also of great interest is the House of Orange. If you’ve seen a Dutch soccer game, or been to the Netherlands, you’ll know they like the color orange. William I of Orange, basically the founder of the Netherlands, came from a principality called ‘Orange’, now in France, and the Dutch celebrate their royal family with the color of its namesake. BUT, Orange, France was named, a couple thousand years ago (before the fruit came to Europe), after a Celtic water god, Arausio. At the time, this had nothing to do with the fruit or the color. HOWEVER, since the middle ages, the crest of the French city shows orange fruit on a branch, and the crest for the German city of Oranienbaum (orange tree) has, you guessed it, an orange tree. According to Wikipedia, Oranienbaum was named after the Dutch House of Orange.
For more about how these languages are related, here’s a ‘simple’ chart.
We are now headed into the dark part of the year. The winter solstice is less than a month away. For the moment, however, let us think not about these short days and long nights, but back to the summer—and especially to summer’s brilliant flowers. How do all these colors come to be? What allows us to perceive them? Why don’t we see the world in the black-and-white of old-style photographs?
Let’s start our exploration of these questions in the northwestern corner of Washington’s Puget Sound, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. Here lie the San Juan Islands, hundreds of islands, islets, and projecting rocks so beautiful that people sometimes ride the ferry just to glimpse them from the deck, never even getting off to walk on land. These complex and convoluted landforms are home to thousands of birds and marine mammals, their shores are decorated with exotic-looking creatures bumping up on one another, and every bit of soil is covered with rich vegetation—stands of Douglas fir and cedar, a bright coastal fringe of madrones with their vivid red-orange bark and brilliant white blossoms, and grasses that turn golden with the advance of summer. In the spring the islands are carpeted with wildflowers, and none more richly than eleven-acre Yellow Island.
Yellow Island has been owned and protected by The Nature Conservancy since 1979. Its flora is basically intact, the way it once was on all the islands, and in the spring it is brilliant.
The photographer finds it hard to move forward, there are so many sights to delight the eye and invite a picture. The biologist is thrilled that such a place still exists, so close to the densely settled metropolis of Seattle and its surrounding cities. And I, in addition to these feelings, find myself marveling at the colors themselves.
All the Colors of the Rainbow
The plants on Yellow Island glow with literally all the colors of the rainbow, from blue, through green and yellow, and on to orange and red. They call out a question that scientists and philosophers have asked literally for centuries—how do leaves and flowers come to have the colors they do? Indeed, why are objects of any kind seen by us as having distinguishable colors?
The sensation of color is an everyday aspect of conscious experience for most of us, but what makes it so? It needn’t be, for we are all familiar with a world without color, as portrayed in the marvelously evocative black-and-white prints of master photographers. It is also different for those who have some form of colorblindness.
For us to experience a colored world requires the operation of many mechanisms, not all of which are understood by today’s science. The foundation of the entire complex chain of processes leading to conscious experience is, however, the interaction of light with molecules. Inasmuch as there are two partners in this interaction—light, and the molecules that are affected by light—we will need to consider both of them.
Let’s start with light, particularly sunlight, the natural light in whose presence all life on Earth evolved. Thermonuclear reactions occurring within the Sun emit massive amounts of energy that streams out in all directions, through the solar system and beyond. The total quantity of solar energy reaching the Earth is just right to warm the planet to a temperature that has enabled the evolution of life. It arrives on Earth’s surface in the form of a vast range of wavelengths of electromagnetic energy, from the extremely short-wavelength and highly energetic gamma rays and X-rays at one extreme, to the long- wavelength, low energy radio waves at the other. Between these two ends of the total electromagnetic spectrum the ratio of wavelengths (and hence also of energies) is 1018, or 1 followed by 18 zeros. Gamma rays are of atomic dimensions, so short that we have no sensory experience to compare them to, while radio waves are measured in miles. Nevertheless, their basic nature is the same. Extraordinary!
Visible light is a tiny, tiny slice of wavelengths in the middle of this vast range, with ultraviolet (sunburn!) just to the shorter wavelength side, and infrared (heat!) to the longer wavelength side. The spectrum that underlies our experience of light and of the visible world runs from violet to red. Here is what this spectrum looks like on the ceiling of a friend’s apartment, with the colors separated by a faceted glass ball she has hanging in her west-facing window.
And here is the same spectrum seen in a rainbow over the rolling plains of Montana, north of Yellowstone National Park.
Rainbows and Flowers
The sunlight that reaches our Earth literally consists of all the colors of the rainbow. But what about the flowers? How do we relate the colors contained within the apparently colorless light that is shining on a meadow to the colors we experience as being the property of the buttercups, the camas, and the paintbrushes?
To come to a deeper understanding, think about a colored liquid that you can handle easily yourself, say red food coloring. You grasp the tiny bottle, squeeze a few drops into a small glass of water, and voilà, you have red water. White light shining in from one side of the glass emerges as red light from the other side. Test it. If you let light shine through the glass and onto a sheet of white paper, you will see a patch of red.
What happened to turn the white light that entered the glass into the red light that exited? When light struck the dye molecules that were dissolved in otherwise colorless water, some wavelengths of light were selectively absorbed. If they were absorbed, they could no longer pass through the solution and be seen on the other side. The color of the light exiting from the solution, therefore, is due to the wavelengths that were not absorbed.
This is a bedrock principle that underlies our experience of color, and that we will explore in several subsequent posts. Molecules absorb some wavelengths of light and fail to absorb others, and the wavelengths that are not absorbed are ones that can reach our eyes and be seen. Notice that there are two partners dancing to manifest this principle, the light and the molecules absorbing the light. This partner dance will be our foundation as we explore the amazing realm of color. For now, just go out into the world and pay attention to the colors you see, being grateful for the privilege.
Once you’ve chosen cover crops that fit your vegetable rotation, management goals, and garden site (See Part III: Selecting Cover Crops for Vegetable Gardens), it’s time to plant! This article contains tips on sourcing seed, and planting and managing cover crops using hand tools.
As I outlined in Part I and II of this series, cover crops can serve many purposes in small-scale vegetable gardens, including soil quality improvement, nitrogen (N) fixation, weed suppression, and habitat for beneficial insects. To achieve maximum benefits from cover crops, it’s important to select appropriate species (or species mixtures) for each garden bed. In this article I’ll highlight promising annual cover crop species for different seasonal niches, management goals, and environmental conditions. Much of this information is based on preliminary results from two seasons of cover crop research in Brooklyn, NY community gardens.1
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:
Buckwheat (Fig. 1c, Polygonaceae) is a popular summer cover crop.
Fig. 1. Examples of non-legume cover crops used in vegetable gardens(Photo credits: M. Gregory)
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)
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:
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)
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.
(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.
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
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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
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).
(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.
(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.