What Is It? “A multi-species cover crop containing 12 varieties often 4 grains, 4 legumes, and 4 root crops”.
12 Apostle mixes are frequently planted by farmers practicing “Biblical Agronomy”.
For example: Oat, pea, turnip, rye, winter vetch, mangel-wurzel (stock beet), wheat, clover, forage radish, barley, frost bean (fava bean), and rutabaga.
Other possible species include: Millet, sorghum, buckwheat, maize, teff, sunflower, lentil, lupine, runner bean, sunn hemp, soy bean, flax, rapeseed, safflower, kale, and many other varieties. Choose what grows well on your farm.
“Melange: A mixture of grains, legumes, and root crops grown to feed animals and improve soils”.
All melanges contain at least 3 components: 1 grain + 1 legume + 1 root crop = “Holy Trinity”.
“We sowed the Holy Trinity. Father Michael blessed the crop and our cattle thrived”.
For example: Thomas Jefferson sowed buckwheat, winter vetch, and turnips to cure “tired soils”.
There is nothing magical about the number 12. Melanges often contained fewer species. Farmers blended odds and ends from their granaries or whatever they could buy cheaply.
Growing several species together (polyculture) is not a new idea. The practice dates to Roman times. Middle Age farmers called mixed plants “melanges”. Today, modern agronomists call them “multi-species cover crops”.
Call it what you will, but “bio-diversity” (many species) is a key principle of Biological Agriculture. Life breeds life. Each additional species creates more food and shelter for myriad lifeforms. Grow multi-species cover crops and soon your soil will teem with billions of critters. More critters = faster nutrient cycling = higher yields.
“Feed the critters and the critters will feed your crops”.
I have not purchased fertilizer (chemical or organic) in 19 years. Truly, there is power in numbers. More species means more money in my pocket.
Try this on your farm: Keep your ground covered with growing plants year-round. Never plant a crop by itself. Always plant mixed species. Copy nature in your fields. You will be glad you did.
If you do not have experience with polycultures, try something simple. Winter grains and Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) can be planted together at the same time. (Broadcast clover at 12 pounds per acre). Clover suppresses weeds and provides nitrogen to the cereal crop. When the grain is harvested clover covers the field. The following season mow first then seed or transplant into clover living mulch using no-till equipment.
Different sized seeds can be mixed in the same seed box and drilled into a common furrow. Big seeds like maize, sunflower and peas break through the soil so little seeds like clover and turnips germinate easily. Furrows spaced 7.5 inches apart are ideal for most multi-species cover crops.
If desired, seeds can be mixed with cornmeal or sawdust to provide more volume for even distribution.
Small seeds like wheat, vetch and sugar beet can be surface seeded. For best results use pelleted seed. Broadcast into standing vegetation then immediately flatten plants with a roller-crimper or cut with a sickle-bar mower. Surface mulch covers and protects germinating seedlings.
Large seeds like maize, sunflower and beans are best planted underground with no-till equipment. Surface sow large seeds only with monsoon rains or daily irrigation.
When sowing grains mix several varieties with the same maturity date. For example: 3 varieties of wheat or 4 varieties of barley. Planting multiple varieties often increases yields 5% to 7%. You can also sow different species together: Mixtures of rye and wheat are called maslin; blends of barley and oats are called dredge. Mixed grains have better resistance to insects and diseases.
Plant mixtures grow better than individual species. Sow barley, pinto beans, and tillage radish in separate plots. Plant a fourth plot with all 3 species. Come the drought and monocrops shrivel and die, but the polycrop remains green. Mixed species help each other. They also support vast networks of beneficial fungi. The fungi provide water and nutrients to the plants.
“Good farmers grow fungi. The fungi grow the crops”.
Mixed plants capture more sunlight and produce more biomass. Rule-of-Thumb: A polycrop of 1 grain + 1 legume + 1 root crop produces 2 times more vegetation by weight than the same species grown separately.
Polycultures increase grain yields substantially. For example: Oats grown alone yielded 43 bushels per acre. Oats grown with peas and turnips yielded 62 bushels per acre.
Rule-of-Thumb: You need at least 6 or 7 species to get the full benefit of polycultures. For example: Oats, peas and turnips yielded 62 bushels per acre. Oats grown with peas, pinto beans, Dutch white clover, Japanese long turnips, tillage radish, stock beet, and rutabaga yielded 76 bushels per acre. More species = more biological synergy = higher yields.
Pair tall growing cash crops with short height legumes. For example: Sow tall heritage varieties of wheat with Dutch white clover. Dutch clover grows only 6 inches high so it competes minimally for sunlight with companion crops. (Planting clover with dwarf or semi-dwarf cereals reduces yields 30% to 50%. Clover shades grass stems which reduces photosynthesis. Less sunlight = lower yields).
Sow non-climbing beans with maize for efficient combine harvest. Vines without tendrils are the best companion plants. For example: Maize planted with climbing velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) yielded 128 bushels per acre. Maize seeded with non-climbing pinto beans yielded 208 bushels per acre. Similarly, oats planted with climbing peas yielded 19% less than oats seeded with dwarf peas.
Earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris) growth is determined mostly by the amount and quality of available food. Plant monocrops and worms take 3 years to reach sexual maturity. Sow polycrops and earthworms take only 2 years to reproduce.
Earthworms thrive on balanced diets of mixed plants. 1 acre of orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) supported a population of 361,000 earthworms. 1 acre of 50% orchard grass + 50% Dutch white clover produced 647,000 worms per acre. Earthworm numbers soared to 2,150,000 per acre planted with a 16 species mix of grasses, legumes, forbs, and root crops.
1,350,000 earthworms per acre feeding on a 20-variety cover crop mix produce 2,700 pounds of surface castings each day of the growing season = about 1 ounce of manure per square foot = 68 pounds of available nitrogen, 35 pounds of phosphorous, and 41 pounds of potassium per acre daily. That is more than enough fertilizer for maize, sugar cane, potatoes, or any crop a farmer wants to grow.
“Feed the worms and they will tend your crops”.
Cereals grown with companion plants are less susceptible to lodging = falling down. Over a 61-year period, oats grown by themselves lodged 38 times. Oats sown with dwarf peas and turnips lodged only 11 times. In all 11 cases full crops were harvested by cutting and swathing oats into windrows. Peas and turnips held oat stems above ground so the grain did not spoil in the mud. (Grain on the ground cannot be harvested due to risk of contamination by pathogenic mold and bacteria).
Weedy fields can be improved by surface planting with clover or other small-seeded legumes. Large seeded legumes like peas and beans should be drilled with no-till equipment. The combination of native weeds and nitrogen-fixing legumes makes a cheap mixed species cover crop that will support large populations of earthworms and beneficial insects. For biological pest control reserve 5% to 10% of cropland for native weeds.
German farmers have a long history of planting “Landsberger Gemenge” = Hill Mixture = Mountain Mixture = Waste Land Mixture = multi-species forage crop sown on land unsuitable for plowing. Typical mixes include 1 cereal or grass + 2 legumes + 1 cabbage family plant or root crop. For example: Winter rye + red clover + winter vetch+ forage kale or turnip. The combination of cereal, pulse, forb, and root crops makes an ideal balanced diet for grazing animals. Cattle gain 2.5 to 3.5 pounds daily when feeding on forage mixtures of 4 to 5 species.
Related Publications: Biological Agriculture in Temperate Climates; Polyculture Primer; Strip Cropping Primer; Worm Farming; Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Earthworm Primer; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Crops Among the Weeds; and The Edge Effect.
Would You Like To Know More? For more information on biological agriculture and practical polyculture please visit: http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com — or — send your questions to: Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 USA.
About The Author: Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during summer and Florida over winter. (Growing 2 generations yearly speeds development of new crop varieties).