Cover bare soil with green manures

Crimson clover

You may hear ‘green manures’ and think green poo! Green manures are actually plants which are grown to benefit the soil and are an organic way to: 1) improve the soil fertility, including adding valuable nitrogen; 2) improve the soil structure, giving better drainage or water retention; 3) suppress weeds; 4) avoid soil erosion; and 5) attract beneficial insects and other predators.

If you find yourself with a bare patch of ground after harvesting or clearing in your garden and are unsure what to plant, then this group of plants may be perfect for you! These plants are quick growing, so the process is simple. You sow, they grow – and then you dig them in. In just a few weeks green manures can benefit the soil. Here at Deelish Garden Centre, we love to encourage the use of this fantastic group of plants.

In the vegetable garden

• Use green manures as a ‘catch crop’. Wherever you have a bare patch of ground, after you have lifted crops such as potatoes, sow a green manure. Phacelia and mustard are quick to germinate, and can be dug in within six weeks of sowing.

• Grazing Rye or Winter Vetch can be sown in the autumn and will keep the soil covered over winter, and thus suppressing the weeds. When the weather warms up, you can dig it in and it will provide nutrients ready for your hungry summer veg such as courgettes or spinach.

• A low growing green manure, such as Trefoil, will keep the ground covered between rows of a tall crop, such as sweet corn. This green manure reduces weeds and retains water.

• Grow green manure for its flowers! Crimson Clover and Phacelia are gorgeous when in flower. Bees and other pollinators love their nectar rich flowers. From spring through to summer, sow small patches here and there to fill in gaps both in the veg and the flower beds.

In the fruit garden

• Vetch grown over winter under greedy fruit bushes will fix nitrogen on their root nodules, ready for release during the growing season. Hoe off in spring, leaving the foliage to decompose on the soil surface.

• You could also grow a long-term green manure, such as White Clover, around the base of fruit trees. You’ll keep weeds at bay and provide a good wildlife habitat for pest-eating predators as well as nectar for our precious bees.

There are many benefits of using green manure crops:

Soil fertility – with their deep root systems, green manures gather nutrients from the depths that ordinary vegetables rarely reach. Plants from the legume family, such as clover and vetch, also absorb nitrogen from the air and fix it in nodules on their roots. Once the green manure plant is mature, by digging it back into the soil all the nutrients are returned as the plant decomposes. This process also feeds the millions of small microcosms in the soil, stimulating them into creating a healthy rich growing medium.

Improved soil structure – Whether your soil is heavy and clay-like, or light and sandy, green manures can help rectify any problems. The extensive, and sometimes deeply penetrating, root system of green manures will open up heavy soils, allowing better drainage. In light soils, these roots remain closely bound to the soil particles and act as a sponge. They hold onto moisture and nutrients, and prevent them from being washed out by a heavy rain.

Weed suppression – Nature takes advantage of bare soil. Weeds will quickly populate any area not in cultivation. A cover of quick growing green manures such as Mustard will smother young weed seedlings, and save you hoeing to keep the soil weed-free. Clover provides an excellent long term cover crop. When sown, you will find a first flush of weeds competing with the Clover. Cut them all back and the Clover will thrive on a second growth, outgrowing the weeds, and building up valuable nitrogen in the soil, ready for when you dig it in.

Prevent Soil erosion – Bare soil and the nutrients contained in it can quickly start to wash away in our wet winters. By growing a winter green manure such as Grazing Rye, you will keep your soil structure and all the valuable nutrients contained in it. Artificial weed membranes can also be used to stop soil erosion but will not benefit soil microbes which will continue to multiply if using a green manure.

Pest control – Sow a small patch of Crimson Clover (one of my favourites) or Phacelia, as their vibrant flowers attract bees and hoverflies, which are invaluable at eating aphids. Research has also shown that some flying pests can be confused if the outlines of their food plant are disguised. For example, under-planting brassica plants with Trefoil or Vetch disguises the outline of the crop and seems to confuse and deter cabbage root fly. Slug predators such as frogs and beetles enjoy the cool, damp ground under a green manure cover crop.

When do I dig them in?

• You need to dig in the manures three or four weeks before you want to use the ground again, or when the plants are approaching maturity – whichever comes sooner. The young green growth will quickly decompose and feed the soil. You don’t want them to get too woody, and you don’t want them to set seed. Mustard, for example, goes over very rapidly once it starts to flower, so it is best dug in when, or before, the first flower buds show.

• Grazing rye, a grass, forms flower buds in the heart of the plant. Once you can feel a flower bud, it is time to dig the plants in. It is important to do this at least three weeks before you want to sow your new veg crop, as the Rye will temporarily release substances in the soil which inhibit seed germination. This is good for keeping out weed seedlings, but you need to wait a month to sow seeds. Planting out young plants, however, is fine.

How do I dig them in?

• To dig them in, simply turn the plants back into the soil, using a sharp spade. Chop up tough clumps as you go. Aim to bury the plants no more than 15cm deep on heavy soils, 18cm on light ground. Mustard and Buckwheat can simply be hoed off or strimmed for larger areas when young, leaving the foliage in place, or added to the compost heap.

• If you don’t want to dig them in, you can let tender plants get caught by the first winter frosts and leave the frosted foliage in place to protect the soil. Or you can cover the plants with light-excluding mulch, such as a landscape fabric like Hypex, black plastic, or large sheets of cardboard held down by straw, logs, bricks and so on.

We stock a large range of green manure seeds here at Deelish Garden Centre so feel free to stop in and we will be happy to advise you on the best options for your gardening situation. In the meantime happy gardening and remember gardening doesn’t have to cost the earth.

Noah Chase

Noah Chase manages a family run nursery, Deelish Garden Centre in Skibbereen.

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