CROP ROTATION PRIMER

Problem:     Growing the same crop in the same field year after year weakens the soil and promotes harmful insects and diseases.

Solution:     Plant a different crop each year.  Alternating unrelated species allows soil to rest and breaks reproduction cycles of diseases and pests.

Example:     Rather than sowing Wheat — Wheat — Wheat, grow Red Clover — Potatoes — Wheat.

Rotation Science:     Each species roots at different depth and takes varying amounts of minerals.  Rotating crops gives soil time to replenish these nutrients.  Every variety has its own cast of villainous insects and debilitating diseases.  Alternating different plants each season starves harmful organisms by denying them hosts on which to feed.

How To Do It:     Following is a list of strict rotation rules.  Obey these instructions and your crops will thrive.  Ignore the rules and you will spend unpleasant sums for costly pesticides, nematicides, and fungicides.

Rule-Of-Thumb:     Never follow a crop with a similar or botanically related species.  Thus:

Rule:     Never follow a grain crop with a grain crop.  Examples:  Oats & Wheat.  Maize & Barley.  Note:  This rule applies to all true cereals = grass crops.

Rule:     Never follow a leaf crop with a leaf crop.  Examples:  Spinach & Lettuce.  Cabbage & Chard.

Corollary:     Never follow a broad leaf plant with a broad leaf plant if there is a better alternative.  Example:  Sunflower & Collards.  Sunflower & Millet is a better choice (broad leaf plant followed by a narrow leaf = grass plant).  This rule is not always easy to follow but keep it in mind especially if nematodes are a problem.  Grasses suppress most nematodes.

Good Practice:     Rotate nematode resistant crops where these parasites cause economic losses:  Asparagus, Arugula, Barley, Broccoli, Cabbage, Castor Bean, Collards, Cowpea, Crimson Clover, Grasses (Poaceae), Hairy Vetch (winter vetch), Jack Bean, Joint Vetch, Kale, Lupine, Maize (corn), Marigold (Tagetes species), Millet, Mustard Greens, Mustard Seed, Oats, Partridge Pea, Rapeseed (canola), Rice, Rye, Sesame, Showy Crotalaria, Sorghum, Sudan Grass, Sunn Hemp, Velvet Bean, Wheat.

Rule:     Never follow a root crop with a root crop.  Examples:  Carrots & Potatoes.  Onions & Sugar Beets.  Note:  All roots, tubers, corms, and bulbs are called “root crops”.

Rule:     Never follow a fruit crop with a fruit crop.  Examples:  Tomatoes & Peppers.  Watermelons & Gourds.  Cucumbers & Eggplants.

Rule:     Never follow a seed crop with a seed crop.  Examples:  Buckwheat & Sesame.  Caraway & Fennel.  Note:  “Seed Crops” include “pseudo-cereals” (Quinoa & Amaranth) and “Oil Seeds” (Safflower, Flax, Sunflower).

Rule:     Never follow a flower crop with a flower crop.  Examples:  Poppies & Zinnias.  Marigolds & Nasturtiums.

Rule:     Never follow a vine crop with a vine crop.  Examples:  Gourds & Pumpkins.  Cucumbers & Squash.  Note:  Some rotation rules overlap.  This repetition is deliberate.  Gourds, pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers are fruit crops, vine crops, and in the same botanical family = 3 reasons not to follow these crops in close rotation.

Rule:     Never follow crops sharing common diseases or insect pests.  Example:  Tomatoes & Watermelons are both susceptible to anthracnose.

Rule-Of-Thumb:     Highly aromatic plants = herbs “cleanse” the soil.  Examples:  Basil, Oregano, Sage, and Thyme.  This rule dates back to the Middle Ages and is especially useful for market gardens and other small spaces.  If you cannot think of a better rotation follow cash crops with herbs or strongly scented flowers like Marigolds.

Rule:     Alternate legumes with cash crops whenever practical.  Examples:  Red Clover & Sweet Corn.  Crimson Clover & Cabbage.  Frost Beans & Green Peppers.  Why buy costly synthetic fertilizer when you can grow nitrogen-fixing legumes?  Let nature pay your fertilizer bills!

Corollary:     Plant legumes with cash crops whenever practical.  Growing 2 or more species together is called polyculture.  Examples:  Pumpkins & Dutch White Clover.  Barley & Chickling Vetch.  Sweet Corn & Pinto Beans.  Cotton & Crimson Clover.  Potatoes & Frost Beans.  Seed multiple species in the same row, in alternate rows, or broadcast together.  For best results use short or non-climbing legumes that will not interfere with harvesting equipment.

Rule:     Use 7-year rotations whenever practical.  Example:  Flax — Sweet Clover — Wheat — Lentils — Rapeseed (canola) — Pinto Beans — Sunflower.  Long rotations are essential to control insects and disease organisms that live in the soil.

Rule:     Alternate cash crops with forage crops whenever practical.  Examples:  Safflower — Winter Rye & Winter Vetch & Forage Turnips.  Winter Barley & Austrian Winter Peas & Tillage Radish — Sunflower.  Forage Maize & Velvet Bean — fall Broccoli or other cabbage family crops.

Good Practice:     German farmers have a long history of planting Landsberger Gemenge” = Hill Mixture = Mountain Mixture = Waste Land Mixture = multi-species forage crops 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 Turnips.  This combination of cereal, legume, forb, and root crops makes a balanced diet ideal for grazing animals.  Cattle gain 2.5 to 3.5 pounds daily when feeding on forage mixtures of 4 or 5 species.

Historical Note:     Farmers in the Middle Ages planted “The Twelve Apostles” = a mixed species forage crop with 4 grains + 4 legumes + 4 root or broad leaf crops.

Rule:     Practice sabbatical rotation whenever possible:  Let fields rest every seventh year.  Grow weeds or multiple species cover crops to restore soil structure and fertility.  Example:  Caraway Seed — Red Clover — Sunflower — Berseem Clover — Winter Rye — Soy Beans — Mixed Grass & Alfalfa Hay Crop.

Rule:     Grow crops in narrow strips rather than large fields.  Plant adjacent strips with unrelated species.  Adjust strip widths to fit planting and harvesting machinery.  For best results strips should not exceed 200 feet wide on flat land or 50 feet wide on hills or slopes.  Example:  4 rows of Sweet Corn — 4 rows of Snap Beans — 4 rows of Sunflower — 4 rows of Sweet Potatoes . . . .  Note how tall crops alternate with short crops.  This increases light penetration into the canopy and greatly reduces pest populations.

Rule:     Plant cash crops with companion plants whenever practical.  Use short cover crops that will not compete with taller cash crops.  Example:  Oats & Forage Peas & Turnips.  Harvest oats with a “stripper header” then graze peas & turnips.  Historical Note:  Farmers in the Middle Ages grew polycrops called The Holy Trinity = 1 cereal grain + 1 legume + 1 root crop.

Rule:     Include multiple species cover crops in farm rotations whenever practical.  Use multi-species cover crops just like legume cover crops.  Mixed species cover crops and legumes can be freely substituted in any crop rotation.  Growing multiple species cover crops is the best way to improve soil tilth and increase soil organic matter.

Good Practice:     Experience has shown that mixed species cover crops effectively control pests and diseases.  However, it is best to be cautious.  Thus, a corn and soybean farmer should not include either maize or soy in his cover crops.  This principle applies to all cash and cover crops.

Rule-Of-Thumb:     Mixtures of plants grow better than isolated species.  full synergistic effects require at least 8 cover crop species.  There is a certain minimum number of species that must be present before soil biology reaches maximum activity.  this “tipping point” appears to vary depending on location and plant varieties.  Some farmers include 30 species in their cover crop mixes.

Generic Cover Crop Mixture:     2 warm season grasses + 2 warm season legumes + 2 warm season broad leaf plants + 2 cool season grasses + 2 cool season legumes + 2 cool season broad leaf plants + 2 or more root crops = 14 or more species cover crop mix.  Broadcast not less than 20 pounds per acre or drill in 2-inch deep furrows spaced 7.5 inches apart.

Rule-Of-Thumb:     Include 50% legumes by weight in mixed species cover crops to provide sufficient nitrogen for following cash crop.

Science Note:     Cover crops containing many species can fix substantial amounts of nitrogen even if few or no legumes are present.  Agronomists speculate that this nitrogen comes from free-living soil bacteria.  Also, symbiotic bacteria fix more nitrogen when mixtures of legumes are grown with plants that do not fix nitrogen.  Maximum synergistic effects are noted in cover crops with 20 or more species.  Ideal number of species is not known.

Rule:     Reserve 5% to 10% of farmland for native weeds.  Grow weeds around fields and in narrow strips between cash crops.  Sow weeds in vineyards and orchards.  Mow weeds only when necessary = at harvest.  Example:  Obtain weed seeds = screenings from local grain elevators.  Sow wherever soil is bare.  Bale weedy fields.  Spread bales of “wildflower hay” wherever soils are weak or pests prolific.  Native weeds are essential to provide food, shelter, and alternate hosts for beneficial insects.  Biological pest control is not effective without native wees growing in close proximity to crops needing protection.

Rule:     Tolerate weeds in cash crops provided density does not exceed 2,500 to 5,000 weeds per acre = approximately 1 weed every 3 or 4 feet equidistantly.  Thin weeds as necessary to protect cash crops from excess competition.  Weeds provide food, shelter, and alternate hosts for predatory and parasitical insects.  Example:  Let weeds grow inside and around tomato fields.  Result:  Save $400 per acre on insecticide costs.

Rule:     For biological pest control, plant cash crops adjacent to native weeds and other plants with small flowers.  More weeds = more flowers = fewer pests = less crop damage.  Rule-Of-Thumb:  If you have a pest problem it means you do not have enough flowers.  Examples:  Plant wildflowers in your vineyard or buckwheat, hairy vetch, and turnips in your orchard.

Rule:     Reserve 5% to 10% of farmland for hedgerows, windbreaks, and wood lots.  For high biodiversity plant not less than 40 species per acre or linear mile.  for best results choose economic species that produce nuts, fruits, berries or other cash crops.  Rule-Of-Thumb:  Everything on a farm should produce income.  Example:  Wildflowers can be harvested for seed or rented to local bee keepers.

Rule:     Break any rule rather than do something stupid.  Rotation rules are based on centuries of practical experience.  Thus, think deeply before trying anything risky.  For example:  Crop rotation can be difficult or inconvenient in small spaces or market gardens.  Solution:  Compromise where needed and apply lots of compost = at least 1 inch deep = 1 pound per square foot.  Soils of high biological activity have strong resistance to pests and diseases.  Rule-Of-Thumb:  Plants with Brix readings above 12% dissolved solids are generally immune to most insects and pathogens.  High Brix levels are directly related to soil organic matter content.  Translation:  More compost = healthier plants = crop rotation is not always necessary all of the time.

Plant Families:     Following is a list of the top 10 botanical families most important to farmers and gardeners.  Use listed species to plan effective crop rotations.

Beet Family = “Chenopods” = Chenopodiaceae:     Amaranth, Beet, Lamb’s Quarters, Mangel-Wurzel (stock beet = forage beet), Spinach, Sugar Beet, Swiss Chard, Quinoa, Redroot Pigweed.

Cabbage Family = “Crucifers” = “Brassicas” = Cruciferae = Brassicaceae:     Arugula, Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli, Cabbage, Chinese Cabbage (bok choy), Cauliflower, Collards, Garden Cress, Horseradish, Kale, Kohlrabi, Mustard (greens), Mustard (seed), Nasturtiums, Radish, Rapeseed (canola), Rapini, Rutabaga, Turnip, Water Cress, Woad (blue dye plant).

Agronomy Note:  Brassicas and Chenopods are good pioneer plants because they do not need mycorrhizal fungi in order to thrive.  Caution:  Do not plant Brassicas or Chenopods if you are trying to encourage beneficial fungi.  Brassicas and Chenopods will not feed mycorrhizal fungi.

Carrot Family = Apiaceae = Umbelliferae:     All plants in the Carrot Family have umbels = umbrella-like flowers composed of hundreds of tiny florets.  Small flowers are ideal “bee forage”:  Angelica, Anise, Caraway, Carrot, Celeriac, Celery, Chervil, Cilantro, Coriander, Cumin, Dill, Fennel, Lovage, Parsley, Parsnip, Wild Carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace).

Cucumber Family = “Cucurbits” = Cucurbitaceae:     Cantaloupe (melon), Cucumber, Cushaw (squash), Gourd, Honeydew (melon), Luffa (sponge), Muskmelon, Pumpkin, Squash (summer, winter, & spaghetti), Watermelon, Zucchini.

Daisy Family = Aster Family = Asteraceae = Compositae:     Artichoke, Calendula, Chamomile, Chicory, dandelion, Endive, Escarole, Everlasting (helichrysum), Lettuce, Marigold, Raddichio, Sunflower, Tansy, Tarragon, Wormwood, Yarrow.

Grain Family = Cereal Family = Grass Family = Gramineae = Poaceae:     Barley, Corn (maize), Durum (wheat) = Semolina = Kamut, Einkorn (wheat), Emmer (wheat), Fonio, Millet, Oat, Rice, Rye, Sorghum, Spelt (wheat), Teff, Triticale (rye x wheat hybrid), Wheat, Wild Rice.  Pseudo-Cereals are not grass plants but are grown and eaten like true grains:  Amaranth, buckwheat, Chia, and Quinoa.

Legume Family = Fabaceae = Leguminosae:     Any plant that has seeds in pods is called a legume.  All legumes fix nitrogen and can be grown as “green manure crops”:     Alfalfa (lucerne), Beans, Carob Tree, Chickpeas (garbanzo beans), Clovers, Cowpea, Castor Bean, Fenugreek, Hairy Indigo, honey Locust Tree, Jack Bean, Lentils, Lespedeza, Lupine, Partridge Pea, Peas, showy Crotalaria, Sunn Hemp, Vetches (tares).  Legumes grown for dry, edible seeds are called “pulses” or “pulse crops”.

Mint Family = Lamiaceae = Labiatae:     Basil, Bee Balm, Bergamot, Calamint, Catnip, Hyssop, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Marjoram, Mint, Oregano, Pachouli, Rosemary, Sage, Savory, Thyme.

Onion Family = Lily Family = “Alliums” = Alliaceae = Liliaceae:     Asparagus, Chives, Garlic, Hyacinth, Leeks, Lilies, Onions, Ramps, Scallions, Shallots.

Tomato Family = Solanaceae:     Eggplant, Peppers, Petunias, Potatoes, Tobacco, Tomatoes, Tomatillos.

Related Publications:     Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; 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; The Edge Effect; Organic Herbicides; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; Coppicing Primer; Forage Radish Primer; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Intensive Rice Culture Primer; Trash Farming; Pelleted Seed Primer; Upside Down Potatoes; Maize Polyculture Trial 2007 – 2016; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; and the Rototiller Primer.

Would You Like To Know More?     For more information on crop rotation and Biological Agriculture 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).

Index Terms:     Biological Pest Control; Brix Levels (in crops); Companion Planting; Compost; Cover Crops; Crop Rotation; Holy Trinity (grain + legume + root crop polyculture); Landsberger Gemenge (mixed species forage crop); Mixed Species cover Crops; Multi-Species Cover Crops; Multiple Species Cover Crops; Polycrop; Polyculture; Sabbatical Rotation (fallow fields every 7th year); Strip Cropping; Stripper Header; Twelve Apostles (12 species forage crop mix); Weed Management; Wildflower Hay; and Wildflowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE TWELVE APOSTLES

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.

“Roots in the ground all year round”.

Agronomy Notes:

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 8 species to get significant benefits from 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.  For example, mixtures of 12 to 16 species out-yield blends of 8 or fewer species.  Communities of 30 species yield more forage than pastures with only 20 varieties.

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.

Plant mixtures extend growing seasons by increasing soil and air temperatures.  Seed tall, medium and short varieties to hold warm air near soil surface.  Multiple species can raise air temperatures 10 degrees Fahrenheit and expand growing seasons by 30 to 60 days.

Related Publications:     Crop Rotation Primer; Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; 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).

BIOLOGICAL AGRICULTURE IN TEMPERATE CLIMATES

A Seminar at Cornell University, Monday 19 November 2018. Sponsor: Norman Uphoff, Professor Emeritus, International Programs SRI Project, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Guest Speaker: Eric Koperek = erickoperek@gmail.com. Website: http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com

My ancestors were literally dirt poor = without soil. They farmed abandoned quarry land. Over the course of 8 centuries they created 10 to 15 feet of topsoil = 1/5 to 1/4 inch yearly. This is how they did it:

BIOLOGICAL AGRICULTURE PRINCIPLES

Copy Nature: “Gardeners are the best farmers”. Observe nature closely then mimic what you see. How do you grow your garden? What do you see in the forest? Copy this in your fields. The idea is to combine biological processes with labor efficient agricultural machinery.

Keep Fields Green: Fields should be covered with growing plants 365 days yearly. Do not waste sunlight. The goal is to produce the maximum possible amount of organic matter per square foot each year. More plants = more organic matter = increased populations of soil “critters” = faster nutrient cycling = higher crop yields. “Roots in the ground all year round”.

No Soil Disturbance: Avoid plowing, disking, harrowing, and cultivation whenever practical. Transplant crops or surface sow using pelleted seed and no-till equipment. Tillage kills earthworms and destroys fungal networks = lower crop yields. “Good farmers grow fungi. The fungi grow the crops”.

Keep Soil Covered: Use living mulches, dead mulches, or growing crops to keep fields covered year-round. Control weeds with Mulch-In-Place. Never leave soil bare not even for a single day. Harvest and replant fields the same day or try relay planting: Sow the following crop several weeks before the first crop is harvested.

Worm Farming:  Use earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) to till and fertilize fields. Earthworms are the key to biological soil management. Worms eat their weight in soil and organic matter daily. One million earthworms per acre = 1 ton of worm manure daily. More worms = more nutrients = higher crop yields. “Feed the worms and the worms will tend your crops”.

Increase Biological Diversity: Grow many crops rather than one crop. Plant polycultures whenever practical. Multiple crops diminish risk of crop failure. “Life breeds life”. More crops = more biological activity = higher yields.

Watershed Management: Agriculture is all about water management. Mind the water and everything else will fall in place. The goal is zero runoff = trap every drop of rain and flake of snow that falls on the land. Store water for dry seasons. Build ponds wherever possible. Irrigate whenever practical. Water is the best investment a farmer can make. One drought pays for an irrigation system.

Biological Nitrogen Fixation: Grow your own fertilizer. Rotate nitrogen fixing cover crops with cash crops. Plant small grains and clover together. Seed maize into roller-crimped Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Transplant vegetables into Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens). Topseed cash crops with low growing legumes. Include 50% legumes in pasture and cover crop mixes.

Increase Edge Effects: Divide big fields into smaller fields. Plant hedgerows and windbreaks. Mix fields with pastures, orchards, hay fields and forest. Grow unrelated crops in narrow strips = strip cropping. Plant borders and head rows with clover and insectary crops. The idea is to attract and maintain large populations of beneficial insects. “The good bugs eat the bad bugs”.

Plant Multi-Species Cover Crops: Mixtures of plants repel insect pests, fix more nitrogen, better resist drought, and produce more organic matter than plants grown alone. Plants in mixtures cooperate with each other sharing water and nutrients through fungal networks. Multi-species cover crops can fix more than 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre; this nitrogen is not accounted by conventional soil tests. Mixed species cover crops promote maximum earthworm populations, up to 8 million worms (8 tons) per acre = 184 worms per cubic foot of topsoil.

Long Rotations Increase Yields: 7-year rotations best control soil diseases and insect pests. Never follow similar crops in sequence (oats & wheat; carrots & potatoes; lettuce & spinach). Never follow crops in the same botanical family (tomatoes & peppers; pumpkins & squash). Never follow plants sharing common pests or diseases.

Grass Crops Make Deep Soils: Integrate perennial grass crops into field rotations. This is called Ley Farming. Perennial pastures and grazing animals promote large earthworm populations = 1 ton per acre = 1 million worms per acre = 23 worms per cubic foot of topsoil = 120 miles of earthworm burrows per acre. Worms produce vast amounts of castings = manure, more than needed for any commercial crop.

Integrate Animals and Crops: Use grazing animals to fertilize fields. Practice Rotational Grazing, Mob Grazing, Stomp Seeding, Cattle Penning, and Folding = Yarding to improve fields and increase yields. Sustainable agriculture is difficult to achieve without farm animals.

Plant Weeds and Crops Together: Reserve 5% to 10% of farm for native weeds. Plant weeds in narrow strips within and around fields. Grow orchards and vine crops in weeds. Weeds provide food, shelter, and alternate hosts for beneficial insects that protect cash crops. “Weeds are the shepherds of the garden”. More weeds = less insect pests.

Plant Flowers with Crops: Most beneficial insects have small mouth parts and so they need tiny flowers on which to feed. Healthy farms grow many small-flowered plants to encourage maximum populations of helpful insects. For best results plant flowers and weeds next to crops needing protection. Sow flowers around fields, orchards, vineyards — anywhere there is open space. More flowers = less pests.

Making Sense of It All

Biological agriculture requires patience. Converting a field from conventional chemical agriculture usually requires 12 to 15 years before the soil is healthy enough to sustain commercial yields without added fertilizer.

Active biological soils easily produce 160 bushels (8,960 pounds) of maize per acre without plowing, fertilizer, herbicides, or cultivation. Irrigated fields can exceed 200 bushels (11,200 pounds) per acre.

On biologically managed soils, most Japonica rice varieties yield 3.5 ounces of grain per plant = 9,528 pounds per acre when plants are direct seeded 12 inches equidistantly on drip irrigated fields. (Indica rice varieties yield less, about 1.5 ounces of grain per plant = 4,083 pounds per acre).

Related Publications:     Crop Rotation Primer; Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; Polyculture Primer; Strip Cropping Primer; Worm Farming; Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Intensive Rice Culture Primer; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Earthworm Primer; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; Forage Radish Primer; The Edge Effect; Coppicing Primer; and Rototiller Primer.

Would You Like To Know More? Please contact the Author directly if you have any questions or need more information about Biological Agriculture.

Eric Koperek. Office Address: 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America. Cellular Telephone Number: 412-888-7684. E-Mail Address: erickoperek@gmail.com. Website Address: http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com

About The Author: Mr. Koperek is a plant breeder who farms in Pennsylvania during summer and Florida during winter. (Growing 2 generations yearly speeds development of new crop varieties).

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAIZE POLYCULTURE TRIAL 2007-2016

Abstract:     This experiment measures the productivity of a 3-species polyculture of flint corn, pole beans, and winter squash.  Heritage varieties are grown in traditional hills with fish fertilizer.  Areas between hills are untended and covered with native weeds. 

Experimental Location:     Butler County, Pennsylvania, United States of America.  40.8606 degrees North Latitude, 79.8947 degrees West Longitude.

Climate:     Butler County has a temperate climate with cold winters.  Average annual temperature = 48.75 degrees Fahrenheit = 9.3 degrees Centigrade.  Average yearly rainfall = 41.85 inches = 106.299 centimeters.  Average yearly snowfall = 37 inches = 93.98 centimeters.  Average Last Spring Frost (36 degrees Fahrenheit) = 26 May.  Average First Fall Frost (36 degrees Fahrenheit) = 23 September.  Frost Free Growing Season = 119 days (about 4 months).

Experimental Plot Size:     1/4 acre = 10,890 square feet exactly = 104 x 104 feet approximately = 10,816 square feet nominal measure.

Experimental Design:     A 1/4-acre plot was planted each year.  Crops were not rotated; hills were replanted each year in keeping with traditional Indian practice.  The experiment was repeated for 10 years (to account for weather variability between years).  10 data sets ensure reliable averages for accurate conclusions.

Soil Type:     Heavy Clay Loam

Crop Rotation:     Field was fallowed in native weeds for 7 years prior to experiment.  Hilled crops were NOT rotated.  Hills were replanted each year following traditional Indian methods.  (Historical sources record that native farmers practiced long rotations.  When soils became exhausted, hills were moved or fields abandoned).

Tillage:     There is no easy way to make Indian planting hills using conventional farm machinery.  Consequently, tree planting augers were used to dig holes 2 feet wide x 2 1/2 feet deep.  Holes were then refilled with excavated soil to make traditional mounds approximately 1 foot high.  Augers save considerable hand labor while preserving weed ground cover.  (The idea is to use native weeds as a multi-species cover crop.  Cash crops are planted in hills surrounded by weeds.  The weeds protect crops from insect pests).

Plant Density:     Hills were equidistantly spaced every 4 feet on center = 26 rows x 26 hills within each row = 676 mounds in the 1/4 acre research plot.  Each hill contained 4 maize plants seeded evenly around a circle 1-foot diameter.  When maize plants reached 2 feet high (4 to 8 leaves), 1 pole bean seed was planted 3 inches from each maize stalk.  676 hills x 4 maize plants per hill = 2,704 maize plants per 1/4 acre.  676 hills x 4 bean plants per hill = 2,704 bean plants per 1/4 acre.  Squash plants were set every other row and every other mound within alternate rows  = 8 feet x 8 feet apart = 13 rows x 13 mounds within each row = 169 squash plants per 1/4 acre.

Plants Per Acre:     10,816 maize plants; 10,816 bean plants; and 676 winter squash plants per acre.  For ease of comparison, yields are summarized in pounds per acre.

Transplant Size:     Squash transplants were 4 weeks old.  All plants were about 4 inches high.  Transplants were grown in 3 1/2 inch interior diameter peat pots filled with crumbled, dried cow manure.

Crop Varieties:     Floriani Red Flint Corn; Scarlet Runner Pole Bean; and Waltham Butternut Winter Squash.

Predominant Weed Species:     Pigweed (Amaranthus blitum), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album), Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), Foxtail Millet (Setaria species), and Morning Glory (Ipomoeae species).

Weed Management:     No attempt was made to eradicate weeds.  Fields were mowed as close to ground level as practical immediately prior to seeding and transplanting.  Cut weeds were used as mulch for planting mounds, about 2 1/4 pounds (dry weight) of weed mulch per hill.  Squash vines overwhelmed most weeds.  Wild morning glory vines were the most difficult to control and some hills (about 15 percent on average) were nearly overrun.  Hand pruning was necessary to prevent crop loss.  A second mowing (when squash vines started to run) effectively suppressed weed growth, but squash and weeds battled for dominance in the “No Man’s Land” between hills.

Irrigation:     Crops were NOT irrigated, in keeping with traditional practice.  There is no historical record of Eastern North American Indians irrigating their crops, probably because there was little need to do so and also because native farmers did not have effective irrigation technology.  Carrying water in gourds, bark buckets, and clay pots is grueling labor.

Insect Control:     No active measures were taken to control insect pests.  Native weeds provided food and shelter for many beneficial insects that protected crops.

Fertilizer:     Fresh trash fish or fish scraps were too difficult to obtain in quantity, so fish meal (10 percent nitrogen, 5 percent phosphorous, 0 percent potassium) was used instead.  Each maize and squash plant received 1/3 cup (1.66 scale ounces) of fish meal mixed with the soil at planting.  This is the approximate equivalent of 119 pounds of available nitrogen and 59 pounds of phosphorous per acre.  Potassium was provided in the form of wood ashes, 6 scale ounces top dressed over each hill when squash vines were transplanted = about 1/2 ton (1,000 pounds) per acre = 70 pounds of available potash per acre.  (Fertilizing crops was NOT a common practice among North American Indians.  Native farmers learned these techniques from Europeans.  For example:  In colonial times, French farmers in Normandy fertilized their fields with herring).

10-Year Maize Yield Summary:     2,997.7 pounds per acre = 1.49885 tons per acre = 53.5 bushels per acre.  Range = 1,853 to 3,960 pounds per acre = 33.08 to 70.71 bushels per acre.  Average Yield per Plant = 4.43 ounces.  1 bushel of clean, shelled corn = 56 pounds.

10-Year Bean Yield Summary:     520.8 pounds per acre = 0.2604 ton per acre = 8.68 bushels per acre.  Range = 336 to 688 pounds per acre = 5.6 to 11.46 bushels per acre.  Average Yield per Plant = 0.048 pound = 0.768 ounce.  1 bushel of clean, dried beans = 60 pounds.

10-Year Winter Squash Yield Summary:     7,293.6 pounds per acre = 3.6468 tons per acre.  Range = 5,412 to 8,776 pounds per acre = 2.706 to 4.388 tons per acre.  Average Fruits per Acre = 3,000.  Average Fruit Weight = 2.43 pounds = 2 pounds 6.88 ounces.  Average Yield per Plant = 10.78 pounds = 10 pounds 12.48 ounces.  Average Fruits per Plant = 4 (4.43 exactly).  Note:  Because of their size, winter squash and pumpkins are not measured in bushels.

Estimated Carrying Capacity:     A 1-acre polyculture of maize, beans, and squash with hills spaced 4 feet apart feeds 1 family (4 people) for 1 year = 2.05 pounds of corn meal per person per day + 0.3567 pound (5.7 ounces) of dried beans for each person daily + 4.99 pounds of fresh winter squash per person daily.  This is more than sufficient to support a small family, especially if rations are supplemented by hunting and gathering.

Experimental Data (Maize):     Yields are recorded in pounds of clean, air dried corn per 1/4 acre.  All numbers are rounded down to the nearest whole pound.  Hills are spaced 4 x 4 feet equidistantly.  26 rows x 26 hills within each row = 676 hills x 4 corn plants per hill = 2,704 corn plants per 1/4 acre.

Year                    Maize Yield in Pounds per 1/4 Acre

2007                    463

2008                    895

2009                    590

2010                    848

2011                    556

2012                    990

2013                    934

2014                    804

2015                    689

2016                    727

10-Year Total Yield          7,496 pounds

Average Yield                   749.6 pounds per 1/4 acre

Yield Range                      463 to 990 pounds per 1/4 acre

Average Yield per Plant = 0.2772 pound = 4.43 ounces

Experimental Data (Pole Beans):     Yields are recorded in pounds of clean, air dried beans per 1/4 acre.  All numbers are rounded down to the nearest whole pound.  Hills are spaced 4 x 4 feet, equidistantly.  26 rows x 26 hills within each row = 676 hills x 4 bean plants per hill = 2,704 bean plants per 1/4 acre.

Year                    Bean Yield in Pounds per 1/4 Acre

2007                    103

2008                    146

2009                    92

2010                    132

2011                    84

2012                    161

2013                    124

2014                    172

2015                    128

2016                    160

10-Year Total Yield          1,302 pounds

Average Yield                   130.2 pounds per 1/4 acre

Yield Range                       84 to 172 pounds per 1/4 acre

Average Yield per Plant = 0.048 pound = 0.768 ounce.

Experimental Data (Winter Squash):     Yields are recorded in pounds of fresh fruit per 1/4 acre.  All numbers are rounded down to the nearest whole pound.  Squash plants are spaced every other row and every other hill within alternate rows = 13 rows x 13 hills within each row = 8 x 8 feet apart = 169 plants per 1/4 acre.

Year                    Squash Yield in Pounds per 1/4 Acre

2007                    1,353

2008                    2,138

2009                    2,025

2010                    1,497

2011                    1,446

2012                    2,140

2013                    2,040

2014                    1,669

2015                    2,194

2016                    1,732

10-Year Total Yield          18,234 pounds

Average Yield                   1,823.4 pounds per 1/4 acre

Yield Range                      1,353 to 2,194 pounds per 1/4 acre

Average Fruits per 1/4 Acre = 750

Average Fruit Weight = 2.43 pounds = 2 pounds 6.88 ounces

Average Yield per Plant = 10.78 pounds = 10 pounds 12.48 ounces

Average Fruits per Plant = 4 (4.43 exactly)

Commentary:     Traditional polycultures of corn, beans and squash are not commercially practical because planting and harvest cannot be mechanized.  Fish meal fertilizer is also un-economic because it costs more ($0.72 per pound) than most chemical or organic plant foods.  Planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops and sowing seeds in rows is far less expensive than traditional hill cultivation.

Strip cropping combines the ecological advantages of polycultures with the economic efficiency of farm machinery.  Plant narrow strips of cash crops following land contours.  (Adjust strip width to fit farm equipment).  Seed or transplant unrelated crops on adjacent strips to take advantage of edge effects.  Planting multiple species on each field increases biodiversity and greatly reduces crop pests.

Related Publications:     No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; 2012 Tomato and Sweet Potato Polyculture Trial; and The Edge Effect.

Other Articles of Interest:     Crop Rotation Primer; Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; “Can Sunnhemp Outgrow Morning Glory?”; Worm Farming; Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; Earthworm Primer; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Upside Down Potatoes; and Crops Among the Weeds.

Would You Like To Know More?     Please contact the Author directly if you have any questions or need additional information about modern or traditional polycultures.  Please visit:     http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send an e-mail to:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com  — or —  send a letter to:  Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America.

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).

WORM FARMING

“The best farmers are gardeners.”

What Is It?     Worm farming is an ancient gardening technology dating back to the Middle Ages.  The earliest written records appear 8 centuries ago.  Back then wealthy farmers fertilized their fields with animal manure.  Poor folks used mulches and earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) to keep their gardens productive.  Today we call this Continuous Mulching = Year-Round Mulching = Sheet Composting.

What Do I Need?     Only simple hand tools are required:  Lawn rake, mulch fork, garden cart, 8-quart pail, flash light or lantern, and a scythe or machete to cut grass and weeds.  For large gardens or truck farms a lawnmower or forage chopper are helpful.

How To Do It:     Keep soil covered with at least 8 inches of mulch year-round = 365 days annually.  Do not leave soil bare, not even for a single day.  Pull aside mulch just enough to sow seeds or set transplants.  When plants are established pull mulch close around their stems.  Apply mulch periodically to maintain 8 to 12-inch depth.  (Mulch settles to half its original depth in a few weeks).

“Feed the worms and the worms will tend your crops.”

Pile It On!     Weeds, tree leaves, spoiled hay, straw, grass clippings, hedge trimmings, garden wastes, stable bedding, wood chips, saw dust, bark or other natural plant materials all make good mulch.  Fresh vegetation is ideal as green leaves rot quickly and contain the most nutrients.  If possible, use a variety of mulches to provide plants and earthworms with a balanced diet.

Fertilizer Not Required!     Soil amendments are rarely needed if garden is covered with a mixture of plant materials.  (Each type of mulch contains an assortment of nutrients).  Sprinkle lime, wood ash, rock dust, or other plant food over mulch as desired.  Water fertilizer into mulch or wait for rain.  Cover manure with mulch to eliminate odor and keep flies away.

“Weeds are the shepherds of the garden.”

Weed Management:     If any weeds poke through the mulch, thin them until they stand 3 to 4 feet apart.  Widely spaced weeds help crops grow better.  Weeds provide food, shelter and alternate hosts for beneficial insects.  The good bugs eat the bad bugs.  Weedy gardens rarely have pest problems.  (If you do not have any weeds plant flowers among your vegetables).

“Sow worms and seeds for bumper crops.”

Seeding Earthworms:     The night before planting take your pail and lantern to a nearby pasture, meadow or corn field.  Place 1 gallon of leaf mold, compost or damp peat moss in the bucket to keep earthworms moist.  Common earthworms come out of their burrows to feed at night so they are easy to catch.  When you have gathered sufficient worms (4 per square foot of garden), cover pail with a wet towel then place in deep shade until ready to sow.  Drop 2 to 4 earthworms in each planting hole or linear foot of furrow.  Cover gently with damp soil.

Population Ecology:     Earthworms do not travel fast; a colony spreads only 3 feet yearly.  Seeding your garden with earthworms jump-starts the colonization process.  Earthworms reproduce slowly; the average worm takes 2 to 3 years to reach sexual maturity.  Thus, the more worms you start with, the faster the population reaches critical mass = enough worms to substantially increase crop yields.  In most soils the tipping point is somewhere between 1 and 2 tons = 1 to 2 million earthworms per acre = 23 to 46 worms per cubic foot of topsoil.  (Under ideal conditions worm populations can soar to 8 tons per acre).

Critical mass is reached when crops no longer need external fertilizers (organic or synthetic).  At this point, populations of soil micro-organisms explode and nutrient cycling is so rapid that crops show no yield response to plant food.  This process requires time, typically 12 to 15 years = 4 to 5 generations of earthworms before fields can sustain commercial yields without added nutrients.

All this requires massive amounts of mulch applied 8 to 12 inches thick (which effectively limits this technology to small areas).  Earthworms eat organic matter.  More mulch = more worms = more plant growth = higher yields.  Earthworms need protein in their diets.  For example, populations double when worms eat clover rather than hay.  If practical, include nitrogen fixing legumes (clover, peas, beans and lentils) in garden mulches, or supplement with animal manure, weed seed meal, or fresh, green leaves.

“Good farmers grow fungi.  The fungi grow the crops.”

Soil Science:     Healthy farm or garden soils contain at least 8,000 pounds of “critters” per acre, about the weight of 8 dairy cows.  All these hungry mouths eat organic matter.  Covering the ground with mulch provides abundant food for the underground “herd”, especially earthworms and fungi.

Earthworms are a keystone species.  You can measure soil health simply by counting worms.  Many worms = strong soil.  Few worms = sick soil.  No worms = dead dirt.  Well managed organic soils contain 1 million worms per acre or approximately 23 earthworms per cubic foot of topsoil.  Earthworms aerate the ground and produce enough castings (manure) to grow commercial crops of anything you want to plant.

Beneficial fungi comprise about 70% of all soil life.  Microscopic, thread-like hyphae connect all plants into a field-wide web, an underground “Internet” of roots and fungi that share water and nutrients.  Plowing or cultivation destroys the fungal network, slowing plant growth and reducing yields.  Mulching protects helpful fungi by keeping soil cool and moist.  Constant moisture and moderate temperatures favor optimal fungal growth.

“Would you go to war with half an army?  Most conventional farmers waste half their soil.”

The top 2 inches of soil contain the most oxygen and organic matter.  This is the powerhouse of the soil ecology.  Over half of all soil critters live in this thin, upper layer.  Anything that disturbs this “topsoil” greatly reduces plant growth and yields.  For example:  Cultivation rips up the earth = the soil becomes too hot and too dry = plant roots cannot live in this hostile environment = the farmer wastes his best dirt.

“Cultivation is the same as scraping off the top 2 inches of soil.  Dumb idea.”

A continuous mulch is like an insulating blanket that moderates the underground environment.  Earth does not freeze in winter or bake in summer.  Pores stay open so air and water penetrate deep into the subsoil.  Wind and water erosion are eliminated.  Weed competition is controlled.  The entire soil profile is accessible to plant roots.  All these factors promote life and speed nutrient cycling.  Soil critters thrive and plants grow better.

Ramp It Up!     Worm farming is best suited to small areas (because mulch is gathered by hand).  For large areas grow mulch crops like Forage Maize (Zea mays) or Sorghum Grass (Sorghum sudanense) then harvest with a forage chopper.  Cart mulch to where it is needed then spread by hand or use a mechanical mulch spreader.  Purchase earthworms or earthworm egg capsules from a commercial worm farm.  Seed not less than 6 worms every 30 feet = about 300 worms per acre.  At this distance it will take 10 years to colonize 1 acre (209 x 209 feet, approximately).  To colonize an acre in 1 year, drop 6 worms every 3 feet (about 30,000 worms per acre).  Cover worms with damp soil and mulch to protect them from predators.

“Who needs Monsanto?  Grow mulch crops and never buy herbicides again.”

Mulch-In-Place:     Mulching large fields by hand is not practical; the cost of labor and materials is too high.  The solution is to grow a mulch crop right where it is needed.  This is called Mulch-In-Place.  Sow Winter Rye = Grain Rye = Cereal Rye = Secale cereale at 3 bushels = 168 pounds per acre.  Kill mulch crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower when plants grow 6 feet tall or when seeds reach the “soft dough” stage.  Immediately (the same day) seed or transplant through the mulch using no till equipment.  Mix earthworm egg capsules (175,000 per acre = 4 per square foot) with cornmeal or similar carrier then side-band down the row or deposit directly in furrows.

If desired, you can seed 8 to 12 pounds per acre of Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) along with your cash crop.  Clover fills any holes in the mulch and provides high-protein earthworm food.

6-foot rye yields 5 tons = 10,000 pounds of long-straw mulch per acre, sufficient to provide 90% to 95% weed control for 6 to 8 weeks.  This gives your crop enough time to close rows.  Once the crop canopy closes, weeds are shaded and no cultivation or spraying is necessary.

Agronomy Note:     Mulch-In-Place works with most any cover crop that grows at least 6 feet high and yields 4 to 5 tons = 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of biomass (leaves and stems) per acre.  The best mulch crops are grasses like Forage Maize (Zea mays) and Sudan Grass (Sorghum sudanense) because they take longer to rot than broad leaved plants.

Mix It Up!     Just like people, earthworms thrive on varied diets.  Earthworm populations double every 2 to 3 years on fields where multiple species cover crops are grown.  For best results sow mixtures of warm and cool season mulch crops including grasses, broad leaved plants, legumes, root crops, and wild flowers.  More plant diversity = more earthworms = higher yields.

“The best soil test is a spade full of dirt.  If the soil teems with life you will get a good crop.”

Sometimes old ways are the best.  800 years ago, worm farming was a great idea.  Today, this technology is an integral part of the New Green Revolution.  Try this on your own land:  Compare side-by-side plots, mulched versus clean cultivated gardens.  You will be amazed at the difference.  Year-round mulching really is the easiest way to farm or garden small areas.

Related Publications:     Crop Rotation Primer; Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Earthworm Primer; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; and The Edge Effect.

Would You Like To Know More?    Please visit:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send your questions to:  Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America  — or —  send an e-mail to:  Eric Koperek = worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com

MANAGING WEEDS AS COVER CROPS

The trick to biological farming is knowing how to manage weeds.  “Manage” does NOT mean “kill”.

Internet trolls are bombarding my e-mail box with comments like:  “You can’t plant crops in weeds!  That’s why they invented tractors”.  Horse power is irrelevant and yes, you can plant crops in weeds:  I manage 90,000 acres without herbicides or mechanical cultivation.  Here is how I do it:

(1)  Manage Weeds as Cover Crops.  Think of weeds as a multi-species cover crop that costs nothing to seed.  This will save you about $40 per acre, right off the bat.  $40 x 90,000 acres = $3,600,000.  We are not talking tree-hugging here.  This is serious agronomy.

Grow weeds to protect your top soil.  A typical corn-soybean farmer in Iowa loses 2 1/2% of his land yearly = 20 tons of earth per acre = $450 per acre at $22.50 per ton (U.S. average top soil price, delivered).  Weeds have value.

If you don’t have enough weeds for a winter cover crop, seed 3 to 4 bushels of oats per acre.  Oat roots prevent soil erosion over winter.  Oats winterkill so no herbicides are needed.  Surface trash is minimal and will not interfere with conventional planting equipment.

(2)  RULE:  Keep Fields Green.  Photosynthesis is the process where plants use water, air and sunlight to make sugar.  More photosynthesis = more sugar = more plant growth = higher yields.  Bare fields are not profitable.  Smart farmers keep their soil covered with growing plants year-round.  Plant cash crops whenever possible.  Sow cover crops for mulch or fertilizer.  Seed weeds when there is no time or money to grow anything else.  The goal of biological farming is to produce the most possible organic matter per square foot.  Grow anything rather than leave soil bare.

The underlying principle of biological weed control is plant competition.  Keep the ground covered with growing crops year-round and weeds do not have a chance to get established.  Never leave the soil bare, not even for a single day.

For example:  Plant winter wheat into standing Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) using no-till equipment.  Next summer, harvest wheat then immediately (the same day) plant turnips into wheat stubble and clover living mulch.  Field stays green year-round.  Weeds cannot grow because they are constantly shaded by competing plants.

(3)  Sow Weed Seeds.  If you have tired, sick or dead ground, or no top soil, go to your nearest grain elevator and fill your truck with weed seeds.  These are usually free.  Some elevators charge a nominal fee for “elevator screenings” which contain many weed seeds.  Sow liberally, at least 40 pounds per acre.  Prepare for amazement.  Weeds are Nature’s Band-Aid, a fast growing cover crop evolved specifically to heal bare earth.  On steep slopes or mine reclamation sites, spread straw or spoiled hay mulch to protect germinating weeds.

(4)  Fertilize and Water Your Weeds.  Every time I say this, half my audience leaves the room.  No, I am not crazy.  Yes, I do know what I am talking about.  I farm without any government subsidies and each acre earns substantial profit.  It pays to feed and irrigate weeds (if possible).  Remember:  Weeds are a cover crop.  You want every field blanketed with a luxuriant jungle of weeds at least 6 feet high.  So water and fertilize as needed, and do not worry about what your neighbors say.  Farming is not about yields; farming is about the bottom line.  Weeds put money in your pocket.

(5)  Feed the Weeds and the Weeds will Feed Your Crops.  Weeds have enormous root systems in proportion to their stems and leaves.  Many weeds also have tap roots that plunge deep into the subsoil.  Translation:  Weeds are great at scavenging nutrients that would otherwise leach away.  Weeds have quick growth response to plant food so a little fertilizer goes a long way.  A few pounds of nitrogen create a vast jungle of vegetation that makes good mulch and fertilizer.  The average weed contains twice the nutrients of an equal weight of cow manure.  Broad leaf weeds rot quickly so fertilizer elements are rapidly recycled for crop use.  Plant crops and weeds together and yields often increase.  The reason is ecologic synergy = plant symbiosis.  Weeds both compete AND cooperate with neighboring plants.  Water and nutrients are shared so crops and weeds grow better.  I learned this lesson farming melons.  The best fruits came from the weediest fields.  So I started planting melons into weeds.  The weeds provided light shade and the melons followed weed roots down into moist subsoil.  Come drought and clean cultivated fields produced little or no crop.  Melons and weeds yielded fair crops.  Irrigated melons and weeds overfilled my trucks with fruit.  Think about this the next time you buy a drum of herbicide.

(6)  Use Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer.  How would you like to slash fertilizer costs?  Get weed seeds or screenings from your local elevator.  Grind them with a hammer mill or roller mill.  Broadcast 4 tons per acre or drop 10 pounds per 25 feet of row.  Unlike chemical fertilizers weed seed meal will not burn crop roots so you can hurl nutrients with wild abandon.  If you do not have any weed seeds, use any other waste seed like spoiled corn, brewer’s grain, or broken soy beans.

To use LIVE weed seeds as fertilizer broadcast seeds into a standing cover crop like Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).  Earthworms, ants, beetles and other critters eat the weed seeds.  Clover kills any weeds that germinate.  Caution:  Don’t try this unless you have a tall, aggressive cover crop that blankets the soil with dense shade.

(7)  RULE:  Apply Chemical Fertilizer Only to Growing Plants.  This rule covers all crops (including weeds) without exception.  It makes no sense to spread fertilizer on bare ground.  Chemical nutrients are wasted unless there are live roots waiting to absorb them.  For best results, synthetic fertilizers should be applied in small doses throughout the growing season, ideally diluted in irrigation water.  Feed growing crops only and well water stays pure = free of nitrates.

(8)  Good Farmers Grow Fungi.  The Fungi Grow the Crops.  Think of all the pipes, wires and roads needed to run a modern city.  Without these conduits life would be nearly impossible.  A corn field is no different.  Under the soil surface is a jungle of lifeforms, a whole zoo full of critters exceeding the combined population of the world’s largest cities.  And every one of these underground citizens depends on fungi for survival.  Millions of miles of microscopic fungi tie the underground world together.  Fungi are the interstate highway system of the soil ecology.  Water and nutrients are conveyed to hungry roots.  Plants share resources through fungal networks.  Many crops are so dependent on fungi that they cannot exist without these symbiotic micro-organisms.  Kill the fungi and the soil ecology collapses.  Yields plummet and fields become sick and barren.  Try to farm dead soil and you will spend vast sums for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.  Today, this is called “conventional agriculture” and most growers lose money on every acre they plant.  There is a better way to farm.

Fungi like cool temperatures, a moist environment, plenty of air, and lots of organic matter.  Rip up the ground with plows and the fungal network is destroyed.  Soil temperatures spike, the earth is parched, a cyclone of oxygen rushes into the ground, and organic matter burns away in a firestorm of excess decomposition.  The result is like dropping a nuclear bomb:  Billions of critters die and the soil ecology is devastated.  Recovery takes years.

Sell your plows, disks and harrows — you don’t need them.  Grow weeds or other cover crops and leave the fungi alone.  Open the soil just enough to get seeds or transplants into the ground.  Further disturbance cuts profits and yields.

(9)  Till Your Fields with Earthworms.  My Grandfather taught me:  “Feed the worms and the worms will tend your crops”.  Common earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) eat organic matter and excrete enough manure to grow 200 bushel corn = 11,200 pounds per acre.  They also burrow 6 feet into the subsoil.  My fields average 1 million worms per acre.  That’s about 23 worms per cubic foot = 1,200 miles of burrows per acre.  When thunderstorms drop 2 inches of rain per hour my neighbors’ fields wash away.  My soil stays in place.  When drought bakes the county, my corn yields over 100 bushels per acre (without fertilizer, herbicides, cultivation or irrigation).  How is this possible?  Plant clover and earthworm populations double.  I seed clover into weeds and the worms feast on the multi-species “salad bar”.  Mind you, this process does not occur overnight.  It took 12 to 15 years to wean my fields off synthetic nutrients.  That’s 4 to 5 generations of earthworms.  I used to borrow mountains of cash to buy farm chemicals.  Now I plant clover and have no debts.

(10)  Grow Your Own Fertilizer:  Conventional green manures are plowed into the soil.  A less invasive technology is called Chop-And-Drop.  Use a rotary mower, flail mower, bush hog, forage chopper, or common lawn mower to cut plants into small pieces that decompose quickly for rapid nutrient cycling.  Immediately sow or transplant another crop before weeds start germinating.  Alternatively, knock down cover crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower then plant through the mulch using no-till equipment.  For example, I sow Hairy Vetch = Winter Vetch = Vicia villosa in October then roller-crimp vines in May.  Vetch controls weeds and fixes sufficient nitrogen for 200 bushel corn or any other crop I want to grow.  Remember:  Chop plants into small pieces for fast-acting fertilizer.  Crimp or cut whole plants for mulch.  Finely chopped plants will NOT control weeds.

(11)  Use Mulch-In-Place.   Think of how much money you will save if you don’t have to buy herbicides or cultivate fields multiple times.  The savings in diesel fuel alone will pay for a 2-week vacation anywhere you care to go.  Let your neighbors plant seed in cold ground.  Be patient and give your weeds more time to grow.  Wait until the soil warms and weeds are at least 5 feet high.  Kill weed cover crop with a roller-crimper or sickle-bar mower then immediately seed or transplant through weed mulch with no-till equipment.  Mulch retards weed growth 4 to 6 weeks — just enough time for your crop to germinate and start covering the rows.  Once the crop canopy closes weeds are shaded and there is no more work until harvest.

There are many variations of Mulch-In-Place.  For example, use a forage chopper to deposit weed mulch into convenient windrows then transplant pumpkins or other fast-growing vine crops through the mulch.  Alternatively, mow strips through weed covered fields.  Transplant vine crops down mowed rows then roll out drip irrigation tape.  Use mowed weeds to mulch crops until plants are established.  Once vines begin to run they overwhelm weeds between rows.  Standing weeds protect vine crops from insect pests.

If you do not have weedy fields, sow winter rye = cereal rye = Secale cereale at 3 bushels per acre.  Roller crimp or sickle-bar mow when rye reaches 5 to 6 feet high or when grain reaches soft dough stage.  Immediately seed or transplant through rye mulch using no-till equipment.  Note:  Mulch-In-Place works with just about any cover crop that grows at least 5 feet high and produces 4 to 5 tons of mulch per acre.

Who needs Monsanto?  Grow mulch crops and never buy herbicide again.  Sell your spray rig and pay off farm debts.

(12)  Use Weeds to Control Insect Pests.  Plant weeds with your crops and you will never have to buy insecticides again.   Set 4 rows of tomatoes then leave a strip of weeds.  Seed 4 rows of sweet corn and leave another strip of weeds.  Plant 4 rows of sweet potatoes with a third strip of weeds.  Drill 4 rows of sunflowers and a fourth strip of weeds.   Alternate crops and weeds across fields and farms, following land contours.  Adjust strip widths to match planting and harvesting equipment.  Weeds provide food, shelter and alternate hosts for beneficial insects.  The good bugs eat the bad bugs.  Native weeds should cover at least 5% to 10% of every farm, even if you also grow insectary plants.  I learned this lesson the hard way.  I grew dozens of crops with small flowers especially to feed predatory and parasitic insects.  Biological control was only partly successful until I planted native weeds next to crops needing protection.  Close proximity is essential as many beneficial insects penetrate only 200 feet into a field over the course of a growing season.  Remember:  You need a mix of native weeds AND insectary plants to protect cash crops.  Maintain biological diversity and pests rarely cause economic damage.  I have not purchased insecticides (organic or synthetic) in 18 years.

(13)  Plant into Standing Weeds (Sow-And-Go).  This works best with fall planted winter grains like wheat, barley, and rye.  Seed directly into standing vegetation using no-till equipment.  (Standing weeds trap winter snow).  If desired, you can seed Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) at 8 to 12 pounds per acre with winter cereals.  The clover provides 90% to 95% weed control, about as good as glyphosate (Roundup).  Expect 60% to 70% of conventional yields without fertilizer or irrigation.  In a dry year you might lose your crop.

If you do not have no-till equipment, try surface seeding = Sow-And-Mow.  This works best with pelleted seed.  Broadcast seed into standing weeds then immediately roller-crimp or cut vegetation with a sickle-bar mower to cover and protect germinating grain.  Come back next summer and harvest your crop.

Alternatively, broadcast winter grain into standing weeds then mow with a rotary mower or flail mower to chop vegetation into small pieces.  Immediately till field with a rear-tine rototiller set to skim soil surface at 2 inches depth.  Make only 1 pass across field.  Your field will look ugly but will make a good crop = 40 bushels (2,400 pounds) of wheat per acre in cool, temperate climates with 40 or more inches of rainfall yearly.

If you have no farm machinery, try the ancient Roman practice of Stomp Seeding.  Fence field securely.  Broadcast seed into standing vegetation.  Turn in livestock (cattle, sheep or goats) until they eat about 1/2 of the vegetation and stomp the other half into mulch.  Livestock must be well crowded in order to make this work.  Allow each animal only enough space to turn around = use very high stocking densities = mob grazing.  For example, 600 to 1,200 cows per acre.  Directly forage is exhausted, move livestock to a new enclosure or fresh pasture.  If field is “tired”, “sick” or barren, feed livestock in their enclosure until they deposit 1/2 to 1 pound of manure per square foot = about 11 to 22 tons per acre, then move animals to another enclosure.

(14)  Plant into Living Mulches.  This is ideal for transplants or crops with large seeds.  For best results use no-till equipment and low-growing legumes like Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) or Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum).  Seed Dutch White Clover at 8 to 12 pounds per acre, or Crimson Clover at 14 pounds per acre.  Seed or transplant directly cover crop reaches mature height of 6 inches for Dutch clover or 12 inches for Crimson clover.  It is good practice to mow clover before planting to give crops a head start.  Watch field carefully.  When the FIRST seedling emerges, immediately mow field as close to soil surface as possible.  If clover is especially vigorous, it may be necessary to mow again 2 weeks later.  Note:  If desired, you can grow corn (Zea mays) with tall-growing Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) using the same method.  No fertilizer, herbicides or cultivation are necessary if clover grows a full year before planting maize.

Planting into clover is a good way for farmers to learn how to work with weeds.  Clover is convenient to grow because its height is easily controlled.  Alternatively, you can make your own cover crop mix and use this as a substitute for naturally weedy fields.  Combine 2 cool season grasses + 2 cool season legumes + 2 cool season broad leaf plants + 2 warm season grasses + 2 warm season legumes + 2 warm season broad leaf plants + 2 root crops (tillage radish, stock beets, or turnips) = 14 species cover crop mix.  Plant at least 20 pounds per acre.  If desired, more species can be added.  For best economy, select cheap seed to keep costs below $40 per acre.

Remember:  All living mulches compete with their companion crops for water, light and nutrients.  For example, Dutch White Clover grows only 6 inches high but this is enough to shade the lower stems of wheat.  Plant Dutch clover with tall wheat varieties and yields are normal.  Seed Dutch clover with semi-dwarf or dwarf wheat and yields may drop 30% to 50%.  Use common sense when pairing cash crops with clover, weeds, or any other living mulch.  Combine tall varieties with low-growing cover crops.  Water and fertilize for both cash crop AND cover crop.  If necessary, retard or kill companion crop by mowing, mulching or roller-crimping.

(15)  Grow Crops and Animals Together.  2,000 years ago the Romans discovered that manure is more profitable than meat.  It pays to keep animals just for their manure.  Pastures grow better when grazed.  Crops grow better when dunged.  There is a significant difference in growth between plants fed manure or artificial nutrients.  No one has yet figured out why.  Drive a herd of cattle into high weeds (or a mixed species cover crop).  Let the cows graze until they have eaten 1/2 of the forage and stomped the rest.  Move herd to fresh pasture then immediately sow small grains or other crops with no-till equipment.  No herbicides, cultivation or chemical fertilizers required.

The cheapest way to keep livestock is to graze them on fresh, green grass.  Move herds to new pasture at least once daily and do not re-graze paddocks until forage has recovered.  This is called rotational grazing and eliminates the costs of building barns, making hay, and spreading manure.  If you don’t have tidy pastures seed mixed-species cover crops or graze native weeds.  What the cows don’t eat the goats will, and what the goats don’t like the sheep will relish.   Range chickens 3 or 4 days behind cows and the birds eat the fly maggots.  Nothing goes to waste and meadows stay clean and sanitary.

Not all weeds are good to have around.  When weeds get out of control there are 2 easy ways to recover ecologic balance:  (1)  Grow cover crops in series, or  (2)  Graze with mixed livestock.  Cover crops overwhelm weeds by shade and competition.  Mixed livestock eats everything in sight.  Either way, problem weeds are eliminated and crop rotation can proceed normally.

(15)  Think Unconventionally.  If everyone around you grows corn, plant something else.  If everyone says you have to spray, don’t.  Conventional wisdom is often just plain wrong.  Do not be afraid to experiment.  Every year I reserve about 2% of my land for agricultural research.  I learned to farm by doing the opposite of what the “Experts” advised.  Along the way I have enjoyed amazing success and spectacular failure.  Both are equally instructive.  Monsanto says weeds are bad and should be eradicated.  I think differently.  For example, in my garden (a jungle of weeds), I thin Bull Thistles (Cirsium vulgare) until they stand about 1 foot apart, then I plant 1 pole bean seed per thistle plant.  The beans climb the thistles and I do not have to cut poles.  My spray-by-the-calendar neighbors told me to cut the weeds or mulch them into oblivion.  Instead, I conducted a paired comparison of 100 beans on thistles with 100 beans on poles.  Thistles beat poles by a slight margin, 3.55% over a 5-year trial.  This is only one of many examples of symbiosis between weeds and crops.  Widely spaced weeds often increase crop yields.  I don’t recommend planting beans and thistles on a commercial scale, but neither do I insist on weed-free fields.  Weeds spaced 3 feet apart (about 5,000 weeds per acre) no longer bother me.  The tomatoes don’t seem to mind and I don’t have to spray for hornworms.  Learn from nature or buy from Monsanto.

Related Publications:  Crop Rotation Primer; Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Living Mulches for Weed Control; Pelleted Seed Primer; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; and Rototiller Primer.

Would You Like To Know More?  Please visit:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send your questions to:  Eric Koperek, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America  — or —  send an e-mail to:  worldagriculturesolutions@gmail.com

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).

LIVING MULCHES FOR WEED CONTROL

Long before there were herbicides, diesel tractors, or rotary cultivators, smart farmers learned to manage their weeds.  How did they do it?  Here’s how:

Living mulches suppress weeds, reduce soil erosion, enhance soil fertility, attract beneficial insects, and help retain soil moisture.  The best living mulches are low-growing, nitrogen fixing legumes.  Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) is a good example.

Before seeding clover or any other living mulch, remember that two crops are growing on the same land at the same time — the mulch crop and a cash crop.  Success requires careful management or both crops may fail.

All living mulches compete with their companion crops.  The extent of competition and consequential yield loss vary with management and crop type.  For example, under drought conditions shallow rooted crops generally show more yield loss than deep rooted crops.  Low or slow growing crops may be overwhelmed by more aggressive companion crops.

As a general rule, living mulches are not recommended where drought is expected because yield losses are too high.  However, many crops benefit from clover mulches during dry conditions — the clover shades the soil, retards evaporation, and increases humidity around the cash crop.

Transplanting Vegetables into Clover

Dutch white clover makes good living mulch for TRANSPLANTED vegetable crops provided:  (1)  Crops are irrigated,  (2)  Crops are fertilized, and  (3)  Crops are protected for the first 4 to 6 weeks from competition by the clover.

1 to 2 inches of water are needed weekly to grow both clover and vegetables without undue competition for moisture.  If water is limiting, it is best to drip irrigate the cash crop rather than water the entire field.

Nitrogen fertilizer is not often required for small grains but is recommended for maize, fruits and vegetables.  The reason is that clover fixes about 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre but these nutrients are not immediately available — they are retained by the living mulch.  Phosphorous and potassium should be applied according to crop requirements along with lime to correct soil acidity.  Dutch white clover needs sulfur and responds well to powdered agricultural gypsum at 2 to 3 tons per acre.

Dutch white clover grows only 6 to 8 inches high so there is little competition for light except when crops are young.  Mow a narrow strip where transplants will be set, or apply a circle of mulch around transplants to give crops a head start.  Once crops are established they will overgrow the clover and produce normal harvests.

Aggressive, fast-growing crops like tomatoes, peppers, okra, melons, squash, sweet potatoes, gourds & pumpkins all do exceptionally well when transplanted into Dutch white clover.  Cucumbers are slower growing and require extra mulch to protect them from early season competition with the clover cover crop.

Stake-less = self-supporting tomato varieties (with thick upright stems) grow well in Dutch white clover.  The living mulch keeps fruits clean and allows easy harvest even in rain-soaked fields.

Once established, Dutch white clover is an aggressive mulch crop that blots out most weeds.  Walk the fields and hand pull any weeds that escape the clover.  Alternatively, thin weeds to at least 1 yard or 1 meter apart.  Thinly spaced weeds will not significantly affect quality or yields of cash crops (but will provide food and shelter for beneficial insects).  Weedy fields often require little or no insecticides to control crop pests.

Direct Seeding into Standing Clover

Dutch white clover is not well suited to direct-seeded crops, especially those with small seeds or slow germination.

Common potatoes are an exception, especially if whole tubers are planted to establish the crop.  Roto-till a narrow strip just wide enough to get the seed potatoes in the ground.  After planting, over seed tilled rows with additional clover seed to maintain soil coverage.  The potatoes grow through the clover without trouble.  Fall potatoes (planted after hard frost in November) averaged 22.8 tons per acre when grown in irrigated Dutch white clover.  Adjacent non-irrigated fields averaged 16.4 tons per acre, the yield loss due to water competition.

Costa Rican Indians grow dry beans by broadcasting seed into the weediest fields available.  The weeds are then hand cut and left as mulch to protect the germinating beans.  Yields are low, only 400 to 500 pounds per acre, but there are no costs other than labor for planting and harvesting.

The same technique works with Dutch white clover.  Spring turnips broadcast into standing clover averaged 10.8 tons per acre when the clover was intensively grazed for 3 days and the seed stomped into the soil by sheep.  Adjacent plots mowed 1-inch high averaged 14.3 tons per acre.  Control plots (no grazing or mowing) averaged only 0.90 tons per acre because of intense competition from the clover.  In comparison, winter turnips (sown after the first snow) averaged 13.1 tons per acre.

These results demonstrate the importance of timing when sowing any small-seeded crop into Dutch white clover.  Ideally, seed should be sown when the clover is dormant.  The next best choice is “sow and mow” (or sow and graze).

Direct seeding into standing clover is not recommended unless the clover is knocked back to reduce competition with the primary crop.

In non-irrigated, non-fertilized fields, flint corn transplanted on 40 inch centers into mown Dutch white clover averaged 68 bushels per acre (along with 1,300 pounds of dried beans and 9,600 pounds of pumpkins).  Adjacent fields transplanted into Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) were overwhelmed and failed to make a crop.

Careful timing is essential when planting mixed crops into living mulches or bare soil.  For example, in a maize-bean-pumpkin polyculture, the primary maize crop should be at least 18 inches high (4 to 8 leaves) before beans or pumpkins are sown, otherwise the grain will be smothered by the companion crops.

Strip cropping combines the pest control advantages of polycultures with the high efficiency of mechanized agriculture.  For example, fields seeded into mown Dutch white clover with 4-row strips of maize alternated with equal width strips of dry beans and winter squash (maize-beans-maize-squash, et cetera) out yielded individual crops grown as monocultures.  The yield advantage for maize alone averages 15% when grown in narrow 4-row strips with other companion crops.  Yield increases from strip-cropping are attributed to better light penetration into the maize canopy, and reduced pest populations in the beans and squash.

Living mulches work especially well with intensive horticulture systems like truck farms and market gardens where careful management and judicious cultivation (including mulching and mowing) prevent the companion crops from overgrowing the cash crops.  When crops are planted into living mulches, entire farms (up to 25 acres) can be run with only a small rear tined roto-tiller and common lawn mower.  Leaving strips of hay, wildflowers, and clover between cash crops and around field borders creates a sanctuary for beneficial predatory insects that help keep pest populations under control.

Seeding Small Grains into Clover

Seeding small grains into living mulches works best when:  (1)  The companion crop is dormant or its growth retarded by mowing, grazing, or rolling, and  (2)  The grain crop is selected for a competitive growth habit.  Heirloom (non-dwarf) varieties usually pair well with understory legumes like Dutch white clover.  Alternatively, clover can be broadcast into standing grain that is well established (8 to 12 inches high).  Again, careful timing is essential to prevent the cover crop from overwhelming the cash grain.

In non-irrigated, non-fertilized fields, fall seeded wheat averaged 28.1 bushels per acre when broadcast into dormant clover.  Spring seeded wheat averaged 21.6 bushels per acre when the crop was “frost seeded” (planted in frozen soil).  Late spring “sow & mow” wheat averaged 19.9 bushels per acre while wheat broadcast into standing clover barely made a crop, only 3.4 bushels per acre.  In comparison, broadcast planted spring wheat top-seeded with clover when the wheat was 8 inches high averaged 15.4 bushels per acre.  To put these yields in perspective, conventionally drilled & cultivated spring wheat (without clover) averaged 39.7 bushels per acre (without irrigation) and 78.5 bushels per acre (with irrigation).

Extra water and fertilizer reduces competition for moisture and nutrients resulting in higher yields.  In irrigated, fertilized fields, fall seeded wheat averaged 70.4 bushels per acre when broadcast into dormant clover.  Frost seeded spring wheat averaged 56.5 bushels per acre, while late spring (sow & mow) wheat averaged 61.9 bushels per acre.  Spring wheat broadcast into standing clover failed to make a crop, while clover sown into standing 12 inch high wheat averaged 74.7 bushels per acre.

Sometimes Old Ways are Best

The clover-wheat-turnips rotation common during the Renaissance is a good example of how cover crops and living mulches can be integrated with modern low-till and no-till agriculture.  Typically, the clover cover crop was “hogged down” (uprooted by foraging pigs); this eliminated the need to plow and harrow.  Wheat was then broadcast by hand and the seed trod into the ground by sheep or cattle.  Turnips were broadcast into the wheat as the heads were filling out, and clover was broadcast over the turnips a few weeks before harvest.  This rotation reliably averages 40 bushels of wheat per acre under European weather conditions without the need for irrigation, synthetic fertilizer, machinery, fossil fuels, or agrochemicals.  (Favorable rain or irrigation boosts this average to 80 bushels per acre).  Low production costs more than compensate for modest yields, a primary consideration for most farmers operating on slim profit margins.

Thoughtful Weed Management

The key point to intelligent weed control is to disturb the soil as little as possible, just enough to get a crop into the ground.

Remember that weeds have evolved specifically to rapidly colonize bare soil.  The more soil is tilled, the more weeds are stimulated to grow.  Conventional bare earth agriculture invites weed invasions.  In order for crops to coexist with weeds and living mulches, a different approach is needed.  Ideally, crops should be over seeded or transplanted with the minimum possible disruption to both soil and surface vegetation.  Often, specialized equipment is needed.  For example:  Why dig a long furrow when only a few discrete holes are needed for seeding?

Without irrigation and fertilization, competition between living mulches and cash crops can reduce yields 50% or more.  Poor judgment (such as seeding at the wrong time) can result in crop failure.

Clearly, there is significant competition from living mulches; the question is whether the savings from reduced tillage and other costs are outweighed by observed yield reductions.  These differences may not be significant depending on how the crops are marketed.  For example, the premium for “organic” produce and the profits from artisan breads are substantial.  In this case, lower yields are offset by higher margins from specialty products sold to niche markets.

Agronomy Notes

>>>  Dutch white clover and winter wheat can be seeded at the same time.  Remember to plant only after the Hessian Fly Date for your area.  This technique works well with all winter grains.

>>>  Top seeding Dutch white clover usually requires a separation of 7 to 14 days between plantings (about the time it takes for the cash crop to germinate).  Slower growing crops need more time to become established.  For example, sweet corn should be at least 6 inches tall before over seeding with Dutch white clover.  Rule-of-Thumb:  Maize should have 4 to 8 leaves (16 to 24 inches tall) before top seeding with Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) or any other type of tall growing clover.

>>>  Organic herbicide may be used instead of mowing, grazing or cultivation to control Dutch white clover prior to planting a cash crop.  For example, a narrow strip of clover can be killed with herbicide before transplanting vegetables.  Use spray shields to prevent herbicide drift.  It is important to disturb as little of the living mulch as possible — kill just enough clover to get the crop established.  Removing too much plant cover favors weed growth.

>>>  If clover seed is unavailable or too expensive, use weeds as living mulch.  This technique works best with fast growing vine crops.  For example:  Choose the weediest field available then transplant melon seedlings on 10 to 12 foot centers.  Mulch each transplant liberally with straw or any other convenient material.  Mulch is necessary to keep weeds at bay only until vines begin to run.  Once started, vines will overgrow the nurse crop.  Melons thrive in the light shade of weedy fields.  As an added benefit, vines growing among weeds rarely have insect problems.

>>>  Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) seed is usually less expensive than Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens).  Sweet corn, popcorn, flint corn, flour corn, pod corn, and dent corns all grow well when planted with red clover.  Top seed = over seed maize with red clover at the last cultivation or when plants have 4 to 8 leaves.  The corn plants are tall enough (about 1 1/2 to 2 feet high) so that competition with the living mulch is minimal.

>>>  Any type of maize can be seeded directly into standing red clover using a no-till planter with a fluted coulter.  Two weeks later the field should be closely mowed with a swathing board and divider to keep the clover from falling on the planted rows of corn.  Alternatively, clover can be mowed directly before seeding.  Watch regrowth carefully; a second mowing may be required 2 weeks later.  No herbicides are needed if maize is planted into standing clover; nitrogen fertilizer is not required if clover has grown on the land for 1 or more years.

>>>  Maize is sensitive to drought, especially during pollination and when ears are filling out.  For highest yields apply 1 to 2 inches of water weekly to prevent moisture competition between crop and living mulch.

>>>  Planting hybrid sweet corn into standing red clover yields about 415 sacks per acre on average when sweet corn is seeded 8 inches apart within rows and 30 inches between rows = 25,979 seeds per acre.  Actual plants per acre is approximately 21,000 (17% field loss rate is common).  1 sack = 52 ears = 4 baker’s dozen = 21,580 marketable ears per acre.  Note:  Yield figures are discounted 50% for typical losses to crows, deer, groundhogs, coons, earworms, undersize or poorly pollinated ears, and other causes.

>>>  It is best to use pelleted seed when hand dropping or broadcast seeding into living mulches.  This is especially true for large-seeded crops like peas, beans, maize, melons, and squash.  Pelleted seeds greatly increase germination and stand establishment rates.

>>>  Seedling survival and stand establishment are optimal when planting is done with no-till equipment.  Expect 20% to 25% loss rates when broadcasting naked, unprotected seed into living mulches or other standing vegetation such as hay or weeds.

>>>  Biological agriculture is all about managing little details, for example, choice of companion crop:  Flour corn top seeded with sweet clover (Meliotus officinalis) was overwhelmed and failed to make a crop.  Flour corn planted with standard (tall) red clover yielded 37.4 bushels per acre.  Flour corn planted with medium red clover yielded 41.8 bushels per acre.  Flour corn planted with Dutch white clover yielded 47.6 bushels per acre.  Yield differences were entirely due to living mulch height.  Taller clovers compete more strongly with maize cash crops, especially when corn plants are young.

>>  Every farm has different soil and micro-climate.  Agronomic practices that work in one field may fail in another.  For best results, every farmer should maintain one or more research plots so that new methods can be tested and adapted to local conditions.

Related Publications

Crop Rotation Primer; Biblical Agronomy; The Twelve Apostles; Managing Weeds as Cover Crops; Weed Seed Meal Fertilizer; Trash Farming; No-Till Hungarian Stock Squash; Planting Maize with Living Mulches; Organic Herbicides; Pelleted Seed Primer; Crops Among the Weeds; Forage Maize for Soil Improvement; Forage Radish Primer; and Rototiller Primer.

 For More Information

Readers who have any questions or require additional information about living mulches should contact the Author directly:

Please visit:  http://www.worldagriculturesolutions.com  — or —  send your questions to:  Eric Koperek, Editor, World Agriculture Solutions, 413 Cedar Drive, Moon Township, Pennsylvania, 15108 United States of America  — or — send an e-mail to:   Eric Koperek = worldagriculturalsolutions@gmail.com

Most agricultural universities publish extensive literature on cover crops, nurse crops, living mulches, green manures, and crop rotation.  Contact your County agricultural extension agent or search the Internet for relevant publications.

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).