It's getting hot outside and you might be wondering what to do with some of your empty garden space during the summer. During the time when we aren't using all of our beds or our field we like to plant cover crops to maintain the quality of our soil. Cover crops play a large role in agriculture by suppressing weeds, building up soil productivity, nitrogen fixation, and controlling plant diseases. Two of the main cover crops that the Howdy Farm is utilizing this summer are cowpeas (black-eyed peas) and buckwheat.
Cowpeas are a drought-tolerant, warm-weather food legume. One of its main benefits is nitrogen fixation for succeeding crops. Nitrogen is a major component in chlorophyll (which is used to convert sunlight energy to produce sugars form water and carbon dioxide) and proteins, and helps plants grow . The atmosphere consists of roughly 80% nitrogen in the form of N2. Unfortunately, plants cannot utilize this form of nitrogen and it has to be converted into another form NH3 (ammonia). The process of atmospheric nitrogen being converted to ammonia is known as nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen fixation occurs when certain types of bacteria form root nodules on the roots of the plant. The bacteria fix the atmospheric nitrogen into a form the plant can use, and in return the bacteria get to feed on some of the sugars found in the plants roots. To gain the full benefit of the nitrogen-fixation, turn under your cover crops back into the soil when they begin to flower. The plants will break down and add organic matter, as well as a slow release of nitrogen for your next crop.
Buckwheat’s main benefit is weed suppression. It has a fibrous root system that establishes quickly giving it the ability to prevent weed growth. Buckwheat is commonly used for ground cover and bringing idle land to production. An added benefit of planting buckwheat is its ability to scavenge for phosphorus and calcium in low-fertility soils, making it accessible for later crops.
As well as being good for soil fertility, cowpeas and buckwheat have several other uses. Cowpeas can be cooked as legumes (black-eyed peas) with high levels of protein, used for stomach and pancreas aliments, and helps control cholesterol levels. Buckwheat is utilized for bird feed, improving vision, lowering the risk of diabetes, and gluten free baking.
Try growing some cover crops in your garden this summer to help you build amazing soils for the fall!
Sprouted Buckwheat Waffles (Courtesy of the Worktop)
Story by Alexis Long