On the farm, we do all the work by hand; no tractors, no plows, no till. Our crew includes interns, volunteer kids from down the dirt road, city cousins and some well trained farm animals. But we also use plants to do lots of work. All year long, cover crops do the tilling, pest control, soil stabilization and a lot of fertilization on our little farm. And in the gardens we make for city clients in Charleston, Columbia and Aiken.
At the end of this essay, you can see pictures of the cool season plants that are working right now. Each pic is accompanied by a note about their job in working the soil.
ALL of these plants will work for you too; farm, yard, or city. In zone 7 or warmer, cool season cover crops started in October normally make little tufts of green all winter. But with this warm winter, our cool season working plants grow like crazy. So we’re doing a lot of plant management right now.
We chop, mulch, mow and let the donkeys munch the plants— just to keep things from getting too big. Yep, the donkeys actually do work around here. When we borrowed them, about 12 years ago, we thought the donkey’s duty would be to protect the goats. The goats had been our mowers until coyotes came.
We consulted a nearby dwarf donkey expert, Miss Wall, from down the dirt road. She said we needed a donkey for sure. Donkeys hate dogs and coyotes; they just do. Farmers use them to chase off the cyotes. She also said, ‘I just love them too much to sell them to you. But you can borrow two. Two, because donkeys like company.”
Hmm; I had to consider the deal. You know, when you borrow something you just oughta’ have a clear understanding of things. In case of a little fender-bender. Or what if I spilled a glass of red wine on the white one? I’ll feel compelled to fix the spots before I return them…..
“Now don’ you worry ’bout that sort of thing.” she said. “I know your Momma. I’ll stop by every once in a while to check up on them.” Her son seemed to do a lot of the farm work, stood by, waist deep in donkeys. He looked at me like it would be a big help if we’d take two off his hands.
So, we brought home our pair of borrowed donkeys. With one concession; she’d let me change the name of the female. I just couldn’t see myself standing at the gate yelling, ‘Pretty Baby, Pretty Baby, come get your hay.”
It’s a good thing they eat all the cover crops because it turns out, these are defective donkeys. They didn’t protect goats. In fact, they chased the goats and ran the mowing-machine goats right out the pasture. Into the jaws of the coyotes. With no where to go the billy and his harem moved onto the front porch. And this was a problem because billy goats stink. It’s a smell they cultivate, want to share and waft right across the porch and into the front hall. Otherwise, goats near the house are OK. One called Martha Brown took to standing on an old church pew on the porch, peering into the living room window every evening when it was time for Jeopardy. Comfortable and with decent tv, but as far as goats go, the porch is not very safe. The coyotes picked them off one by one.
Let’s make it a true daily double Alex, “What is a defective donkey?”
At least they keep the fields mown.
Winter cover crops are proven to work. This is old technology that we understand better than ever. Native American gardeners employed them, hippy communes too. The long term benefits are described in a 1911 classic book titled Farmer’s For Forty Centuries; Permanent Agriculture; Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan.
Winter cover crops work on our small organic nursery, on massive farming scale and in any backyard garden.
For more about how we use covercrops year round on our organic nursery, please read Deep Rooted Wisdom; Stories and Lessons from Generations of Gardeners.