Ask a Question forum→Cover crop or compost?

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KJShug
Mar 6, 2021 7:36 PM CST
Hello,
I have raised garden beds that I would like to use a no till method in. I am wondering what the best way to add nutrients back into the soil might be? Should I use an annual fall sewn cover crop? Usually, I believe you would turn under the crop to get the full nitrogen benefit, but for no till, would you just leave it on top of the soil or clear away after dying? We also have a large chicken run that we use the deep litter method in, (which basically makes a bunch of chunky, not totally broken down compost). We clean it out once a year, but it will be hot still. That being said, would you put a layer of the chunky hot compost on in the fall after veggies are out, giving it time to rest before spring planting? I worry the amount of uncomposted material that might sit on top of the bed form this will be a great place for pests to hide. And I don't want to add another project and start making my own, better quality compost, and too expensive to buy the amount I'd need, so these are my two options. I'm not sure which would work best. Thank you so much for any thoughts.
Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
Not all who wander are lost
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DaisyI
Mar 6, 2021 8:06 PM CST
Welcome!

I think you are missing the point of no-till gardening. It doesn't eliminate the need for a compost pile. That chicken manure will take a whole year to cool off enough to use in your vegetable garden (I know that because I used to keep chickens).

You can plant a fall cover crop but, you will have to till it into the soil in spring or pull it and add it to your compost pile. I usually plant peas in winter.

No till is about simply putting away the tiller. Spread your compost on your garden in fall and let it sit all winter if you want. I don't - it can sit in the compost pile until I'm ready to use it. Smiling Then dig a hole where you want to plant, incorporating the compost layers into your planting hole, add a little fertilizer and aged manure and plant. Using a drip system works great for this type of gardening.

Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming...."WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

President: Orchid Society of Northern Nevada
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Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
Not all who wander are lost
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DaisyI
Mar 7, 2021 12:38 AM CST
Forgot to mention earlier... if you want to layer in the fall with leaves and such, you will have to move that stuff back to dig your holes. You will have to use composted materials in your planting holes but the uncomposted stuff will make good mulch and eventually decompose but won't be usable the first year.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming...."WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

President: Orchid Society of Northern Nevada
Webmaster: osnnv.org
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 8:44 AM CST
Hi, thank you.
I think my question had a bit too many parts to it to be clear what I was really asking. I am actually quite familiar with no till gardening. I do understand the basics like needing to move the mulch aside to plant to plant, etc etc. And I do have a compost pile, and understand the need for it, but currently, the weed free compost goes in the chicken run since I use that material in the veggie garden and the rest goes in the other compost pile, which I don't manage as well and don't want in the veggie garden. I am just wondering what most people do. Compost or cover crop? And then after that question had been answered: Wheather anyone feels, since you would be removing the cover crop instead of turning it under, weather that is enough to add plenty of nitrogen back into the soil, since generally, to get the full benefit from the cover crop you would want to turn it under at peak bloom. (At least for the ones I am used to using). And then, relating to compost, if my chicken compost would be too uncomposted to work well. As far as how hot the compost is, a year to cool off is a lot longer than I have read! Most things have said 3-6mo. Maybe because I have been tilling it into my previous in ground garden beds, that is the difference? Because I haven't had any nitrogen burn problems. But I also believe your experience as it is often better than random things in the internet. My concern for the raised beds is that since it will be sitting on top of the soil instead of getting tilled in, it won't decompose as fast, and creates great slug hiding places. But like you said, I could leave it to sit after removing from the coop, or just use it more like mulch if I'm not worried about pests. All small details and both would probably work okay. Just curious what everyone else does. Thank you again for taking the time to respond! Appreciate it very much!
Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
Not all who wander are lost
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DaisyI
Mar 7, 2021 12:06 PM CST
Hmmm... Thought I had answered your questions.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming...."WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

President: Orchid Society of Northern Nevada
Webmaster: osnnv.org
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 12:15 PM CST
Yes thank you, you mostly did. I was hoping for more than one persons experience though. ...But maybe I am not on the right website for that. And also some specific knowledge on which method would likely add the most nitrogen back into the soil. Really, any reasons why someone might choose one method over the other. Whether it be the amount of nutrients that get added back into the soil, how easy it is, etc. Just curious what most people do to add nutrients (besides fertilizer) into raised beds, who don't want to till and keep it organic.
West Central Minnesota (Zone 4a)
Rubi
Mar 7, 2021 12:23 PM CST
My experience is that no till doesn't work for me. The soil doesn't warm up fast enough for warm weather crops here if it isn't tilled. Most of my garden is direct sown seed, and if my heavy soil isn't tilled I'll have germination failures. Where I'm transplanting seedling starts I won't till, but I dig a huge tree-transplanting-sized hole to loosen and amend the soil around my transplants.
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 12:31 PM CST
Ok, thanks for that Rubi. I will keep that in mind if I have problems with germination. I'm guessing it'll be warm enough here though, as I am in zone 8b, and I do transplant out some things, so that might help, but we'll see.
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
RpR
Mar 7, 2021 12:37 PM CST
How large are your raised beds?
What cover crop do you wish to use?
Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
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DaisyI
Mar 7, 2021 12:39 PM CST
Its a personal choice but I will tell you my reasoning.

My garden is a raised bed and I use no till. My yard is a small city lot with no room for a compost pile, no lawn and no trees (I live in the desert) so all my additives are bagged from the BigBox store. I don't layer my already decomposed material in the fall because it would all blow away in the wind (often 50+ mph) before planting time in the sping. I do plant peas in winter but I pull them and add them to my daughter's compost pile. Smiling You could plant a cover crop and leave it to die and decompose, just move the dead plants aside and plant.

When I had the room for a compost pile, chickens, a lawn, trees... I used the no till method but used my compost pile because I don't think the direct layering is an advantge. In fact, I think it caused me more work because I had to keep moving un-decomposed material aside and planting while waiting for it to decompose. Why bother? All that stuff was happening in my compost pile and the chcken manure made some great soil. But it took a year (I had two piles, one for everyother year) of mixing and watering before I was happy with the results to use in my garden.

@mnoasis, @gardenfish, anyone else care to add?

Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming...."WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

President: Orchid Society of Northern Nevada
Webmaster: osnnv.org
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 12:43 PM CST
Hi RpR,
I have 14 raised beds that are 8'L x 4'W x 2'H, and 4 about half that size. I was going to try Berseem clover as a cover crop.
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
RpR
Mar 7, 2021 12:45 PM CST
KJShug said:Hi RpR,
I have 14 raised beds that are 8'L x 4'W x 2'H, and 4 about half that size. I was going to try Berseem clover as a cover crop.

Do you get winter kill?

OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 12:50 PM CST
Thanks Daisy,
Yes, I think that was why I was having a hard time asking the right questions because it is very personal to your situation. Good to know you felt like it was more work than it was worth, layering it in the fall. Thanks for all the input!
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 12:55 PM CST
RpR, sorry, by winter kill if you mean the clover, yes it is an annual in my zone. If you mean the majority of my veggies, do they overwinter or not? Only a few beds will have veggies that winter over in them.
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
RpR
Mar 7, 2021 1:09 PM CST
Winter kill generally means plants that will not survive a ground freeze or hard frost up here but in this case I mean the clover.
When will you plant; how do you intend to cut down the clover?
Berseem can get 15 inches high.
Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
Not all who wander are lost
Garden Sages Plant Identifier
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DaisyI
Mar 7, 2021 1:26 PM CST
Don't you want a cover crop in winter? Berseem is a summer annual. It will die at the first sign of cold weather.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming...."WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

President: Orchid Society of Northern Nevada
Webmaster: osnnv.org
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 1:26 PM CST
RpR, well, for the beds that I plant early, if the clover is still alive I suppose I'd just clear it with whichever shears work best, my electric or long shears, then plant. I'm thinking I may cut back all the beds sometime after blooming but before they go to seed, so that they aren't spreading to places I don't want. But this is the part of cover crops I'm unfamiliar with, as I've only used them in ground and tilled them under before planting. Open to all ideas of how to best manage these beds! Thank you!
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 1:42 PM CST
Daisy, yes, sorry, I got my cover crops mixed up there, and myself confused. Smiling I had been spending a lot of time looking at different types this week and had contemplated using a summer annual in some beds where it was appropriate. Which is the Berseem. But for this thread, yes I wondering about a winter cover crop. So any suggestions on crops appropriate for that would be welcome! I have only used crimson clover in the past.

RpR, I probably have you confused now too! Sorry!
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
RpR
Mar 7, 2021 1:46 PM CST
Berseem should work well planted in fall.
Do not do use material that is not true compost unless you just want to see what happens.
Crimson Clover is getting more popular for your purpose.

If you really want to spice up your soil a cover crop of rye and clover left all year, cutting before seeds and turned over by hand in fall will get you best results .
OR
KJShug
Mar 7, 2021 1:57 PM CST
RpR, sounds good! I'll double check on the Berseem, since Daisy thinks it won't work, but my initial thought was that it did as well. Maybe I'll do a little crimson and Berseem comparison.

And that's great info on the rye clover combo, I might have to do that in rotation on my beds! Thank you!

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