The harvest is underway! Finally, we can enjoy the bounty of all the hard work, nurturing and battles with weeds and insects.
Soon all will be harvested, consumed, sold and stored, leaving behind an empty field, garden or raised bed. Many will remain barren throughout the winter, exposed to the harsh elements of wind and water erosion, oxidation and nutrient loss.
Then spring will arrive with the daunting task of trying to not only replenish the nutrients consumed by our crops last, season but also the losses due to exposure all winter long.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service estimates it takes 100 years to make one inch of topsoil, depending on climate, vegetation and other factors. Just think how quickly one inch can be washed or blown away if left unprotected.
Each spring, we work hard hauling and spreading compost, fertilizer and manure in order to have another bountiful crop. We have all heard the saying, “work smarter, not harder.” How can we not only keep our rich top soil, but add to it by accumulating and storing excess nutrients in our fields and gardens, without the back breaking shoveling and spreading? The answer is cover crops.
Cover crops are densely seeded plants intended for growing large amounts of organic matter. These plants most commonly are annual or perennial legumes, grasses or small grains. In the home garden, cover crops are usually planted in the fall and winter and incorporated in the spring as green manure. In commercial farming operations, cover crops are planted between cash crops.
In the absence of a cash crop, or intercropped within a cash crop, many are harvested or grazed serving as a second income source.
Soils are designed to have living plants growing. Harvesting our crops creates bare soil, which is like road rash for a human. In order for soil to heal and stay healthy, it needs to be covered or protected from erosion, oxidation and nutrient loss.
Cover crops can enhance soil fertility when grown as green manures. This happens in two ways.
First, legumes, such as alfalfa, peas and beans collect atmospheric nitrogen and store it in their root systems. The nitrogen is made available when plants are turned into the soil at the end of their growing season.
Second, grasses and small grain crops collect and store excess nutrients preventing them from leaching beyond the reach of most roots. Stored nutrients are released and become available when the cover crop is incorporated into the soil in the spring.
Cover crops are a great tool in managing weeds. A strong, dense cover crop can crowd out and suppress annual and perennial weeds. Some cover crops, such as annual rye, winter wheat and barley release chemical properties into the soil preventing some weed seeds from germinating.
An important contribution of cover crops is helping in building soil health and structure. The sugars excreted from root systems, especially grasses, serves as glue and feeds microorganisms, fungi and other living organisms including earthworms. Good soil structure is the key to providing space for root growth, water infiltration and helps reduce soil compaction and increases water holding capacity. All of this helps our soils during drought situations.
Selecting a cover crop depends on your goals. Whether you are trying to break compaction, add nitrogen, reduce weed pressure, or all the above, you are sure to find the variety or combination that fits your need.
We all enjoy the comfort of extra covers in the winter to help protect us from the elements, why not do the same for our soils? If you are interested in growing a cover crop in your garden or farm and would like additional information, contact the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service.
To register for an upcoming program, call the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service at 565-3002. For more information, visit valenciaextension.nmsu.edu.
• Meadow Lake Kids Club: 4-5:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Sept. 24; Oct. 8, 4-5:30; free, at the Meadow Lake Community Center, 100 Cuerro Lane, Meadow Lake. Youth ages 4-18.
• Jams & Jellies, Canning Class: 9 a.m. to noon; Thursday, Sept. 12. RSVP required by Sept. 5.
•Healthy Cuisine: Asian Fusion: 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesday, Sept. 17, $10. Peralta Methodist Church Community Education Building, 25 Wesley Road, Peralta. RSVP required by Sept. 13.
•Waterbath Canning Class: 9 a.m. to noon, Thursday, Sept. 19, $10. RSVP required by Sept. 12. Location provided upon registration.
• Rio Grande Heritage Festival: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 21, free. Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, 1036 Miller Road, Los Lunas.
•Freezing/Drying Food Preservation Class: 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesday, Sept. 24, $10. RSVP required by Sept. 20. Location provided upon registration.
•Pressure Canning: Food Preservation Class: 9 a.m. to noon, Thursday, Sept. 26, $10. RSVP required by Sept. 23. Location provided upon registration.
•StrongWomen: 10:30-11:30 a.m., Mondays and Wednesdays, Belen Eagle Park Community Center, $10 registration fee.
•Nurturing Parenting Class: 4-5 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 12, San Clemente Church, Los Lunas.
If you are an individual with a disability who is in need of auxiliary aid or service to participate in a program, please contact the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service office at 565-3002 two weeks in advance of event.
Newt McCarty, guest columnist
Newt McCarty is the former Valencia County agricultural agent for the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service.