Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Winter bed, cover crops, rabbit forage

I'm still working on a cover cropping strategy for the vegetable beds and I'll try to expand on this in future posts.   For me the number one reason to cover crop is to put nitrogen in the soil, which is done with legumes such as peas and clover.   Nitrogen is the one essential nutrient that can evaporate into the atmosphere, mostly as ammonia.  A compost bin holding plant matter and animal manure will slowly lose nitrogen while the water-soluble nutrients will remain.

Last March I planted field peas and oats in the future squash bed and covered the seeds with compost.  Once established the green shoots were harvested with shears every day for rabbit forage.  The bunnies loved it, especially the field peas, which is a high protein forage.  The roots of the peas were thick with nodules that held the nitrogen fixing bacteria, so I know that nitrogen was being added to the soil.  Once the heat killed the cover crop it left a nice mulch on the soil that also suppressed weeds. This year the squash has produced a record crop, which may be due as much to the weather as the soil.  At any rate I'd consider the cover cropping a win/win here.

Later in the summer after the cole crops were finished in their beds I planted buckwheat, again covering the seeds with compost.  I was hoping that berseem clover would be the summer legume of choice, but it never germinated or grew well enough to work.  Next summer I will plant crowder peas, a heat tolerant legume.

Cole crops were grown in these two beds.  The bed in front got the early plantings and was finished by the end of June, when I seeded buckwheat and topped the seeds with compost.  I don't have a seed drill and have found that covering the seeds with compost protects them from birds.  The buckwheat by this point went to seed and I debated whether to dig it in or pull it out.  I didn't want volunteer buckwheat everywhere so I pulled it out, very easy since buckwheat has shallow roots.

The bed in back got the later plantings of brassicas.  It was seeded with buckwheat and field peas in late August.  The field peas made it through a few weeks of very warm weather and have established themselves, while the buckwheat acted as a 'nurse' crop.  I've been harvesting the plants for over a week and feeding the cutting to the rabbits.  That bed is their salad bar.

As for the rabbits, they began eating greens at a little over three weeks old.  That takes some pressure off the doe to provide milk.  I've never had a problem with young rabbits eating greens, in spite of warnings about bloating.  I think the mother may provide them with the necessary gut bacteria in her milk.   The babies are still not big enough to eat pellets.  Here they are at 25 days with a willow branch to feed on.  They've already learned to use the water bottle.

Back to the beds - the one brassica bed was cleaned up, hoed and raked.  This will be the winter bed, where cold tolerant crops are overwintered under a plastic greenhouse.  In the past I have planted only spinach for overwintering but this year I'm going to expand the plant list.  I'm going to plant corn salad (mache) and a winter lettuce mix from Pinetree.  Also a row of bunching onions.   And garlic.  I'm not sure how garlic will respond to the relatively higher soil temperatures under the plastic but found someone on the internet who tried it and got earlier garlic.  I'm going to plant it there because that's the only spot available now.

So there's a bed ready for planting, but not quite.  September has been unseasonally warm, more like August, and the lettuce, spinach and mache won't germinate in warm soil.  (Not complaining.  The weather has been spectacular.  No bugs.  Cool nights).  That problem was solved two days ago when the area got two inches of rain, followed by a sharp cooling.  It's now more like October, and I expect to begin planting everything except garlic in a few days as the soil loses heat.


Mark Willis said...

Lots of crop science in your post today, my friend! If only I could be so disciplined... I always find it odd that Lettuce, which is always perceived as a Summer crop, won't germinate in warm temperatures.

Margaret said...

I'm enjoying reading about your cover crop experiments as I'm hoping to start incorporating some into my beds at some point. I always find the experience of "real" people very informative and telling, especially when it comes to problems and limitations. All too often, expert articles only give you the upside and don't consider the practicalities.

I'll also be interested to see how your winter greens work out. I overwintered spinach last year and it's success was so-so. I've not given up on the idea, however, and will probably try again at some point in the future.

gardenvariety-hoosier said...

Margaret - I found a few spinach varieties that overwinter, after trying out a number of them. If you have the space I suggest planting several different kinds and see if any of them work in your garden.

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