Critics who visit our farm to learn about our style of no-till often point out that our deep mulch system isn’t viable for most regions of the world. They’re correct. Very few farms have the necessary resources in their area to apply generous amounts of organic matter to immediately boost fertility while simultaneously eliminating weeds. And when compost is available, it’s often too costly to apply in large amounts.

An alternative approach to improving soil heath is through cover cropping. We’ve used this system successfully on several areas of our farm. When done right, you’ll be amazed at how easily dead soils can be revitalized and weeds and pests eliminated. The only downside with this method is that it takes longer and requires significantly more labour before you realize a profit.

Cover Cropping, photo provided by Local Harvest.

Before planting your cover crop, it’s imperative that the field or garden is free of weeds. Vigilance here saves time and money later. Begin with an area that’s manageable.

If your plot of land is mostly bare, use a shovel to eliminate all weeds taking care to dig out the stubborn, deep rooting perennial weeds. Repeat this process over a few weeks to make sure you’ve exterminated all visible weeds. New weeds that sprout should be dealt with using a hoe or a rake or mechanical cultivation equipment if you’re dealing with an acre or more.

If your field is covered with quack grass, horsetail, morning glory and other insidious weeds, you’ll need a more aggressive approach and more time. We use cultivation equipment like a tiller or power harrow as a one-time solution even though it violates a fundamental farm law: “avoid disturbing the soil at all costs”. Our consolation is that massive soil disturbance will only be necessary the first year.

Wheel hoe, photo provided by Local Harvest

Don’t take a holiday in your first year. Every other week, through the heat of summer, run over the land chopping up and exposing every root and tuber to the scorching sun exhausting both the weed seed bank and every green thing. This approach, though damaging to land, has worked well in completely exterminating weeds on our farm.

Depending on how quickly you’ve eliminated weeds, you might not be ready to seed until mid-summer. But starting right is critical. Beginning with bare ground, even if it contains a million weed seeds per square foot, is easily dealt with.

I cannot over emphasize how important it is to maintain a weed-free garden after this point. Once you’re committed, you must have zero tolerance for any unwanted plants in your garden. Use a seek and destroy approach. You’re the grower, you make the decisions of who’s welcome and who’s not. Choose wisely or you’ll be creating hours of unnecessary work.

Grain cover crop, photo provided by Local Harvest

Choice of Cover Crop

For your first cover crop, choose plants that are easy to weed and sow your seed in straight rows in permanent beds. A multi-species cover crop is always preferred but for now you may wish to seed each bed with a single species that matures quickly to reduce your weeding workload.

Grain cover crop, photo provided by Local Harvest

What are your options? It depends on the time of year, your climate, the size of your plot and on how much time you can spend on weed control. Peas, corn, sunflowers, fava beans and potatoes are easy to weed and produce lots of green matter. Grains make great introductory cover crops with their deep roots but are more difficult to keep weed-free. Include annual flowers in your cover cropping scheme as well, but cut them back before they seed. Lacy phacelia and white alyssum are good options. Stay away from crops that are difficult to kill such as white Dutch clover.

Use a cultivator to prepare a seed bed for your cover crop. And I highly recommend you use irrigation to grow your cover crop as quickly and uniformly as possible.

Lacy phacelia, photo provided by Local Harvest

Then, even before weeds are visible, and the cover crop has yet to emerge, scuff up the surface between the rows and down the pathways with a hoe or rake. My wheel hoe fits perfectly down the rows and is an incredible tool when used right. All surfaces in your garden should be cultivated twice per week for the duration the cover crop is in the ground. Your task is to encourage weed seed germination for all weed seeds that are in the first two inches of soil.

When the cover crop emerges, hand weed along the row. You’ll now appreciate why I recommend growing corn, sunflowers, or fava beans. They germinate quickly in moist warm soil and are easy to weed. When the cover crop is up a couple inches, mound the soil with a rake around the plants. A week later, remove the mound. The following week, mound again. Every time soil is disturbed, you’re killing weeds. This is exhausting work, but persistence will pay off and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your soil will become free of weeds.

Besides ease of weeding, your cover crop serves several other purposes. First, it boosts microbial life in the soil. Most plants exude a significant amount of the carbon they produce through photosynthesis into the root zone to feed microbes. Their generosity is self-serving. In exchange for carbon sugars, these organisms, when preyed upon by other members of the soil food web, become plant available nutrients.

Attract insect, photo provided by Local Harvest

Restoring Soil Biology

Unfortunately, through our abusive treatment of the land by repeated cultivation, the biology will probably be absent when you seed your crops. How do we restore balance and reintroduce critical members of the soil food web? There are two ways to accomplish this. The first is through the application of aged, living compost or a liquid compost extract that’s teeming with a vast array of microbes ready to work with plants. Even small amounts, when deposited around living plants, will significantly increase microbial populations in the soil and consequently improve plant health.

The second approach is by attracting flying insects or birds to the area. Frass, or insect poop, is nutrient rich and contains a wide array of essential microbes that plants need to survive and thrive. And think of the millions of microbes in the droppings from the visiting blackbird who was busily devouring fat worms in the neighbour’s garden. But how do you bring these winged friends to your garden in the first place? Simple, provide them with food and shelter. And that’s why biodiversity in our gardens is essential even in the cover cropping stage.

Another reason for growing a cover crop is to produce carbon as quickly as possible. Corn, for example, will stand five feet tall in September from a July seeding. All this green, fibrous material will make great microbe food. We use a flail mower to grind up cover crops into a pulp that acts as a mulch on the surface of our new garden. Into this mulch, we seed our next cover crop.

Lepidoptera, photo provided by Local Harvest

If it’s late in the season, I might choose fava beans or grains as my second cover crop. Alternatively, your land might be ready for a planting of garlic. Regardless of what you seed or plant, recognize that your battle with weeds isn’t yet over. Some weeds, like chickweed and dandelion, are primed to germinate in late summer when the nights are cool. Remain on your guard.

Throughout this process of building fertility, it’s important to look beyond the production of a food crops for consumption or for market the first year. Your main purpose here is to rejuvenate and restore land to a point where you can grow great vegetables profitably without expending countless hours on weeding. But couldn’t you use vegetables as a cover crop? You could, but most annual vegetables don’t produce copious amounts of green matter and often have a shallow, simplistic root system. They’re also more susceptible to pests whose populations can balloon out of control in an unbalanced ecosystem.

By the second year, you’ll be ready to introduce your first food producing crops. Again, choosing easy to weed vegetables is recommended but I wouldn’t hesitate to begin growing a small amount of carrots and beets. Feed your plants and mulch using compost with inputs from your own property. If you’ve been vigilant, you’ll notice a vast reduction in weeds and your garden will scarcely need cultivation. Eventually, you’ll be able to hang up the hoe for good.

Rewarding-Profitable, photo provided by Local Harvest

Wrap Up

If you’re still with me, you’ll notice my insistence on developing a no-till system that’s also weed-free. Astoundingly, some organic growers who’ve been producing food for decades, are still in the weeds. Every year they fire up the old tiller, destroying soil structure, volatizing nitrogen and carbon and bringing up millions of weed seeds giving themselves countless hours of needless work. I understand that some of these farmers don’t pay themselves or don’t see labour as an input cost. But regardless of whether the work is being paid or not, time spent on weeding means less time spent on productive things like making compost, mulching, seeding, harvesting, and saving seed.

If we’re to develop a low input, high output system of agriculture, we’ll need to find ways of improving fertility and eliminating pests using the resources available to us on our farm or within a closed system of regional farms. Introducing massive amounts of off-farm compost to achieve this is unrealistic in most regions of the world, forcing us to find a different approach. One possible method is using cover crops as our vehicle to build soil. As I’ve pointed out, in this system the work needs to be front loaded and our first couple years can be grueling and often overwhelming. But if we persist, learning from nature, farming will become enjoyable, rewarding, and profitable.

If you'd like to learn how to achieve food self-sufficiency from your yard or through container growing, feel free to checkout our free preview gardening e-course.

Image of Local Harvest crops and people, photo provided by Local Harvest