We have bad soil. The busiest project I have had so far is to try to improve the soil, especially so that we can produce food. You can’t grow food in clay and rocks.
So I use compost and hugel beds to give the soil a boost. But this takes huge amounts of work and only add the nutrients to the top of the soil. I don’t till, for many reasons, so I need another idea to break up the compact clay and add as much organic matter as possible. While still being a little lazy. Cover crops.
Cover crops, or green manure, have many benefits for your soil and there are many kinds to choose from depending on what you need. I am trying to prepare parts of the property to be a no mow lawn. Not much will grow in the clay. I planted clover this year and last year to start breaking up the clay. The roots of the clover break up the earth and when they die off, they leave organic matter. When the plant dies, it also adds organic matter. The clover also adds nitrogen to the ground, something all the plants will benefit from. Having plants growing on the bare spots prevents erosion and helps retain moisture in the ground. The clover flowers are great for bees and other pollinators. Bring as many to your gardens as you can! A few years of planting clover like this, and I may have a decent place to plant some grasses.
Getting the garden soil ready for planting has been more of a challenge. The soil is quite acidic here and quite compact. The garden beds I use now have taken a couple summers to get where they are now, and I still haven’t had a great crop from them. When we build our new house, I plan to have a big garden right next to it, but I can’t work on it too much until the house is in because it is so close. But, I can plant cover crops. I chose buckwheat for my garden mostly because it was what was available to me. We have a local farmer’s union where I shop for some of my seeds and things. I buy cover crops here because they are inexpensive and I don’t have to ship a huge bag of seeds. Whatever they have in this shop is what the local farmers use anyway, so I know it is a good choice for me. Buckwheat provides most of the same properties as the clover, and is a short season cover crop. If we have a chance, buckwheat is also a grain crop that we could harvest. I may just gather the seeds to plant next year. Getting the soil as ready as possible will allow me to get a garden growing well sooner than if I only built the terraced beds I plan to build.
If you would like more information on cover crops, check out these links:
Permaculture News (has a great cover crop chart)
A Permaculture Design Course Handbook