Cover Crops I Can Eat or Put in a Vase

Our marigold cover crop strip from last summer

I’ve found a cover crop I can live with – catnip!  It’s cute for at least the first year, before it gets woody and hard to pull out.  It has nice foliage, pretty flower spikes, and attracts a diversity of beneficial insects and bees.  It also makes a nice tea for insomniacs, although there’s a limit to how much catnip tea a family can use.  The seeds sprout like crazy, but the plant doesn’t spread invasively from underground roots as some of it’s other family members do, like spearmint.  Where I didn’t want it, it was easy to hoe out.

Before we moved to White Hall, we had no experience with cover crops.  Gardening in Bethesda, Maryland I was very familiar with weeds.  In suburban Bethesda, I felt I was pulling up every weed known to mankind, including the alien vetch (pea family) that was particularly hard to eradicate.  So when I read that vetches and various peas are desirable cover crops, I really didn’t want to seed those things in White Hall without knowing more about them.

Last years rapeseed on the future vineyard site

Our first cover crop was rapeseed, from the cruciferae family of mustards, cabbages, radishes, arugula cauliflower, brussell sprouts, etc, all delicious!  Lucie Morton, our vineyard consultant, recommended the rapeseed because of it’s nematocidal qualities.  It’s in my favorite family of plants anyway because I love all those crucifers (also called the brassicareae family).  None of them – not any part – are toxic to us.  This makes it easy to forage for wild varieties.  We had fields of rapeseed with huge flower buds that looked a lot like broccoli.  The young leaves looked a lot like kale.  They were delicious when steamed like broccoli with a little butter on top.  There many are other mustard family cover crops to experiment with.  Oil radish has a big long white radish root that would be good for cooking with.

Another cover that isn’t too obnoxious is buckwheat.  These little buggers germinate with the sparsest amount of rain, and we sure had sparse rain last summer.  They were very pretty with lovely white flowers that also attracted beneficial insects.  I feel pretty safe planting buckwheat.

Buckwheat flowers and Rough & Ready Microclover (photo:

I joked with Scott that crabgrass was my cover crop between the grape rows and in the fallow field!  The delicate grass and micro clover mix that we planted between the Petit Manseng rows couldn’t compete with the crabgrass in last summer’s blistering non-stop 95 degree days.  I’ve not given up on it yet though!   We’ll try again this year. The clover in this mix, called Rough & Ready, is a very fine micro clover developed in the Netherlands. Hopefully it isn’t expecting cool Dutch weather here in the central Virginia mountains.  The clover is supposed to keep the ground green even in hot weather when the fescue grasses are languishing.  Best of all, no fertilizer is necessary for the grass since the clover is a legume. Rough and Ready is exclusively available from Hobbs & Hopkins.   It’s not cheap so I hope we will like it!

Nema-Gone marigolds vs the Nematocidal Marigold

Another good “custom” cover crop option is special nematocidal marigolds.  We planted some of these in a dry strip last summer once the rains had stopped.  Each marigold flower produces so many seeds that it doesn’t take long to get thousands of seeds from a year’s production.  I purchased Nema-Gone marigolds from Burpee – two thousand seeds are $7.95.  They produce plants about 4’ high with sweet French-style gold and orange flowers.  The Nematocidal Marigold seed (tagetes minuta) I purchased from Seeds of Change can be 7 – 10’ tall (yes feet, not inches!) with masses of slow to flower tiny yellow flowers.  This variety takes about 4 months to reach maturity. It is also much more expensive than Burpee’s more traditional looking marigold.

Here’s another idea I’m trying this spring.  Steve Solomon, author of Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, has planted regular peas as a cover crop in his garden.  Sometimes there’s time to harvest the peas before they have to be yanked out.  He also recommends the above mentioned buckwheat as “…the only summer cover crop I can recommend without hesitation, knowing it will work almost anywhere and not get any gardener into trouble” (page 213).

Gardening When It Counts is a wonderful, wonderful book.   It’s easy to read, humorous, and tells you real SECRETS from Steve Solomon who founded Territorial Seed Company and trial raised all the seeds he sold.  It’s just a fantastic book.  I read it again and again.  We plan on selling it in our Tasting Room – check it out if you’re interested and let me know if you like it as much as I do!

And here’s another book my Mom gave me, just for fun.  It’s The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander.  It’s hilarious and would be a great present for the gardener in your family just in time for spring.  Anyone who’s every tried to put in a vegetable garden can relate to this one!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: