I’ve been growing vegetables in raised beds for several years now. Two years ago, the crops in my main garden bed did very badly—probably because I hadn’t taken good care of the soil.
Contrary to what you may think, soil is not dead material. A wide variety of organisms make up the soil food web, from bacteria, fungi, and protozoa to nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, and insects. As these organisms eat, grow, and move through the soil, they enrich it and make your plants happy.
You must replenish the nutrients in the soil so all the creatures that live in the soil have something to eat…but please don’t use fertilizer! You can amend/enrich your soil naturally with organic matter like dried leaves, grass clippings, etc. (a compost pile is great for this).
My favorite way to amend the soil is with a cover crop. This means that during the winter or spring, I plant a beneficial but expendable batch of plants in the raised bed.
Why plant a cover crop?
Cover crops help your garden in many ways:
- They reduce erosion, especially during winter rains.
- Cover crops slow the growth of weeds.
- Their roots penetrate the soil and allow water and oxygen to permeate the soil
- Certain plants “catch” the nitrogen and minerals in the soil that rains wash away. When you till these plants back into the soil, the nitrogen and minerals are returned to the soil.
- If allowed to bloom, they attract beneficial insects.
This year, I chose to plant red clover (shown above) as my cover crop. It’s hardy, good for the bees, and grows quickly. It “catches” nitrogen and its long roots loosen the soil and bring nutrients up to the surface.
I got a large packet on Amazon, and it should last for several years (this is the brand I bought).
How do you plant a cover crop?
Plant: In early spring, as soon as the soil was warm enough, I sprinkled the clover seeds thinly over the soil in the raised bed. I didn’t plant too many, because the plants’ roots would take over the soil and leave no room for veggie roots.
Harvest: Before the clover got too tall (and definitely before it went to flower or to seed), it was time to harvest my cover crop. I cut it down with the weed whacker and let the cut plants sit for 2 days. This allows the cut plants to soften so they can be tilled back into the soil, where they will decompose.
Till: I have done this by hand in the past–and it really is a giant pain. The raised bed is 2 feet off the ground, so it’s hard to get good leverage with a shovel. Thankfully, this year I have a secret weapon! I used my Mantis tiller and working all the clover into the soil took just 3 minutes.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Mantis tiller is lightweight and easy to control. It only weighs 21 pounds, so it was no problem to stand at one end of the raised bed and zip the tiller around. Yes, this is me holding up the Mantis tiller with one hand–pretty cool, huh? I knew carrying babies for all those years would give me good arm strength. 😉
Plant: After 3 weeks, the clover had decomposed enough that the soil was ready for me to plant. I ran the tiller through one more time (seriously, it took longer to get it out of the garage than it did to till everything up) and the garden was ready to go!
Now I am on the verge of being overwhelmed with zucchini, thanks to my healthy soil. Zucchini fritters, anyone?