Time to cover up

Whether you've got 100 square feet or several acres to work with, if you don't periodically replenish the soil's nutrients, you're going to have an abysmal crop. I should know, since this was easily the worst garden I have ever grown. Ever. See, it had been a while since I'd added organic matter to my little plot of land, but, considering the soil once looked as rich and dark as coffee grounds and produced fantastically well, I thought I could get by with being lazy this season. For my lack of effort, I was rewarded with calcium-deficient tomatoes, which rotted at one end before the other was even fully ripe, stunted and misshapen cucumbers, and altogether absent broccoli florets. The fact that I didn't water any of the plants regularly simply exacerbated the problem.

To try to improve my soil for next year -- and, perhaps, to redeem myself as a bona fide organic gardener in the process -- I'll be planting a cover crop in the coming weeks. There are several kinds of cover crops or "green manures," and they can serve many purposes. Some reduce soil erosion, crowd out weeds, and "till" the soil with their extra-long roots. Others, including several types of legumes such as sweet clover and crimson clover, actually "fix" nitrogen in the soil.

In my area, hairy vetch, winter wheat, and winter rye are a few cool-weather cover crops on which sustainable farmers can rely. Although the vetches can become invasive if left unchecked, hairy vetch is a bargain at $2.50 per pound of seed at my local farm co-op. But, thanks to rising fuel costs, both winter wheat and winter rye currently cost well over $20 per pound. In comparison, last year, they were each about $14 per pound. While those price jumps shouldn't affect my ability to resuscitate the soil on a very small scale, I worry that they'll clobber the farmers who've come to rely on cover crops to reduce (and sometimes to eliminate) the need for synthetic fertilizers. With no relief in sight, though, soon it may be more cost-effective for them to go back to synthetically fertilizing their crops instead of slowly, steadily improving the soil.