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Parson: Thanksgiving is past, now time for cover crops and drought management
Daniel Parson
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For me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday of the year. It’s totally focused on seasonal food (except for the green beans — how did that happen?). It comes at a time of year that I can leave the farm without leaving chores undone. And it marks the end of our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that runs through the week before Thanksgiving. As much as we love filling the boxes of produce for our subscribers, we also like the winter break.

This time of year, our gardens are slowing down. Even those of us who plant late fall gardens and use season extension slow down by late November. This year has been a little different with late-season warmth but even so, we have had our first good frost already.

Some fields have crops still coming in — collards, kale, turnips, carrots and beets among others. The other fields are ‘put to bed’, meaning they are planted to cover crops. In fact, even the growing cash crops have cover crops interseeded — meaning they are seeded between the crop rows. We grow cover crops to support the growth of our cash crops.

There are two big reasons we grow cover crops — soil fertility and organic pest control. I’ll fill you in on the pest control at a later date. Soil fertility is improved by growing grasses and legumes together in the same field. The legumes fix nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil. The grasses scavenge nutrients already in the soil and save them for the next season. Both types of cover crop create organic matter, which is a big factor in soil health.

If you haven’t planted cover crops in your garden yet, it’s getting a little late. But not too late… Because of the warm weather late in the season, our soils are still warm enough for certain seeds to germinate. There is a grass, grain rye, and a legume, Austrian winter pea, which will come up almost all winter in our climate.

So, if you have bare soil in your garden at the moment, I would recommend that you go out and get some rye and peas to put in the ground. Even if you decide it is too late for planting this year, it’s almost time for planning next year’s garden. Next month, I’ll share details of our planning process with ideas for using crop rotation principles in your own garden.

If you want a little more information right away, check out my ‘field trip’ video with Georgia Organics.

Now on to the drought…A few years ago I heard a talk by the state’s climatologist who explained that climate and weather are different. Our climate is such that our weather at this time of year includes precipitation. However, our weather has not included rain lately.

In Georgia, we are no strangers to drought. The current one seems to be more acute compared to recent droughts. I actually don’t remember a single season when the soil has been so consistently dry to such a great depth.

It will be an interesting winter because of the timing of such extreme dry weather. In the plant world, there are annuals and perennials. Annuals have to make seed at the end of their season, and those seeds need to germinate at the right time of year for the plant to grow. You can divide annuals into two types: summer and winter annuals. The winter annuals need moisture in the fall so their seeds can come up and grow. Moisture we haven’t seen this fall.

I started to notice this happening in our ‘wild areas’ of the farm. The summer grasses were dying from the drought and perennials were going dormant a little early. But there were exactly zero winter annuals germinating. It’s also an important time for biennials and perennials to start growing and get established. The concern is that as it gets colder, it could be too late for these winter growers to become established.

When I shared this with Dr. Eloise Carter, Oxford’s plant biologist, she told me a story about our region’s unique rock outcrop plants.  They have adapted as annuals to live in one of the world’s harshest environments — extreme heat in the summer, cold in the winter, and very little soil depth to save the water that does fall. Dr. Carter reports that normally, these plants are growing as a ‘rosette’ that grows all winter to bloom in the spring. This year, due to lack of rain, nothing has germinated on the rock outcrops.

On the agriculture front, our state Agriculture commissioner reported in an interview that they could not even plant rye this winter for their cattle. Larger farms rely more on rainfall than we do.  On our small scale we can water a quarter acre at a time to get the cover crops to germinate. In a normal year, it works well to rely on the rain to grow fall crops. Our climate is such that it starts raining in October and the groundwater levels build until the following April. While I’m hoping for the predicted chances of rain next week, I’m also looking ahead to see if we get the recharge that normally occurs over winter. Until then, I’ll continue growing cover crops and using mulch to increase my organic matter, which will help keep any moisture we do get. Will it ever rain again? Yes. When will it rain? I don’t know.

Daniel Parson is the farmer/educator at Oxford College of Emory University.