The Good Idea that Wasn’t

The Good Idea that Wasn't PicDuring this week’s garden update, I mentioned how hard I had worked in the garden last weekend, but all I got accomplished was preparing the raised beds (and still have four more to do). Twelve hours of labor on five beds! What was I doing and why did it take me so long?

Last fall, I decided to plant a cover crop in the raised beds that I wasn’t going to use until spring. (See my article on Cover Crops.) So, I bought red clover seed and sowed it in nine of my beds. It grew wonderfully, survived both ice storms, and kept my soil healthy.

The problem wasn’t with growing the crop. It was in killing it. The idea was to cut down the clover, let it dry, then turn it under to help fertilize the soil. I’m betting a farmer would have had little problem doing that with his farm machinery on acres of land. But it wasn’t so easy with my raised beds.

First, I diligently cut down the clover with my shears. (Hard to get a lawn mower in there, right?)

Red clover cut down in my raised beds

Red clover cut down in my raised beds

Silly me, I forgot that clover can be cut and still grow!

Time for Plan B – killing it with darkness. Every gardener knows that without sunlight, a plant can’t survive. So, cover it with mulch, wait a week, instant death, right? But then…there’s clover.

Red clover growing through mulch

Red clover growing through mulch

Some of the clover found its way through and around the mulch in every bed. If even one stem with one leaf received the smallest bit of sun, the entire plant stayed green – even under the mulch! Resilient little buggers!

I was running out of time. The beds needed to be ready for planting ASAP. It was time to handle it the old-fashioned way – a pair of gardening gloves, a kneeling mat, and some weed-pulling brawn. I figured most of the clover was dead under the mulch, so it was just a matter of pulling what survived around the edges. Little did I know what really goes on underneath a clover patch. There’s a reason clover makes such a great cover crop!

When I began to pull the clover, I realized that it has a large root system. With the clover growing so tightly together, the roots were close together as well. Even the dead clover’s roots needed to be pulled.

Pulled clover and its roots

Pulled clover and its roots

There were so many roots under the soil that if I hadn’t pulled every one, there would’ve been little room for my veggies’ roots to spread out! Some of the roots on these things were as thick as small carrots. I should’ve taken a picture of one of the big tap roots, but this one will give you some idea.

Clover with tap root

Clover with tap root

Now you can see why I spent so much time prepping my raised beds for planting. It was exhausting work!

I will say, my soil looks beautiful – dark, loamy, earthy-smelling. Between the clover as a cover crop and the mulch I laid on top, I’ve got some awesome soil. It just took many hours to get the cover crop out so I can put the veggie crop in.

Planting clover as a cover crop was a good idea up front. I just didn’t realize how labor-intensive it would be on the back end. I work a full-time job in addition to keeping my homestead, so I don’t have a lot of extra time. Those twelve hours (plus the six more I’ll need to finish the last four beds) should’ve been spent doing my spring planting. Now, I’m a week behind schedule. Not too big of a deal, it would seem, but I must get that seed in the ground this weekend. The summer heat starts in May here, and my plants need to be acclimated and large enough to survive the heat when it arrives.

So, did the red clover do its job? Yes. Does it make a good cover crop? Yes. If you have the time to devote to it, by all means, plant the clover.

As for me, I’m going to avoid the trefoil triffids and stick to putting down a thick layer of mulch on my fallow beds instead. That’s the kind of good idea I do have time for.

Have you tried a cover crop in your raised beds? How did it work for you?

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2 comments on “The Good Idea that Wasn’t

  1. thank you so much for this warning. I was wondering whether to use cover crops or keep chickens and let them roam in my raised beds to prepare them for next seasons planting. You’ve helped me make up my mind for chickens! AND I’ll get lovely fresh eggs and save a couple of girls from the battery farm.

    • Glad I could help! Clover and other cover crops are great for the soil, but I found the clover removal too labor intensive because I had to do it by hand. If I didn’t also work a full time job, I wouldn’t have minded. But what a workout!

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