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Mustard is uncommon in that it flowers in winter, making it an excellent cover crop that helps out your local bees.
Mustard is uncommon in that it flowers in winter, making it an excellent cover crop that helps out your local bees.

Late fall and early spring are the times of heaviest labor on the farm. There are never enough hours in the day, especially in the fall when it’s dark early and still dark late in the morning. Headlamps have sure changed the game for me — no more holding the flashlight in the mouth while trying to work. Seasonal changes bring on a transition in patterns; we’re pulling cannabis stumps, planting our brassica and salad mixes and sowing cover crop.

We farm a limited amount of land and we are heavily committed to maintaining green cover or mulch as much as possible. Green cover crop sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere, converting it into high quality, nutrient dense soil additive or forage for animals. This year we’ve been more on top of our cover crop game than ever before and it’s awesome to see lush, knee-high stands of it going into winter. The beds we sowed early (back in August) will be ready for prep much earlier in the spring than a cover crop sown now, but it’s never too late!

Simple and Accessible Winter Cover Crops for Cannabis Farms

Local nurseries carry a mixed blend called the Organic Soil Builder that contains fava beans, vetch, field peas, rye and oats. We add mustard to the mix because it flowers in a time when there aren’t many flowers, providing a much needed nectar flow to the bees. Broadcast it and put a bit of mulch over the top and you’ll see the sprouts poking through within a couple of weeks.

Before you know it, you’ll have lush stands of cover crop that you’ll marvel at all winter. You can eat the pea shoots, we eat the hell out of them and they’re very good for you.

The roots of the cover crop will hold the soil together, building tilth and porosity as they decompose after cutting in the spring.

To really add an organic matter boost, follow these steps

8 weeks before planting next crop — Cut the cover crop and fork the residue into the soil 8 weeks before you want to plant your next crop. Come back after four weeks and do your usual prep/amending. You’ll find that the cover crop residue has begun to break down and adds dramatically to the composition of your soil, feeding the blooming microbial populations and creating a new vibrancy just waiting to be taken up by your next crop.

4 weeks before — Another four weeks finishes the decomposition process as the initial microbial bloom consumes the excess and dies off; this die-off and resulting humic processes hold nutrients stably in the soil in plant-available form.

Don’t have 8 weeks? If you don’t have eight weeks, cut the cover crop and give the residues to animals or make a nice big compost pile with enough dry material to balance out the green nitrogen load. This cuts your 8-week process to a 4-week process but still yields the greater porosity, stabilization, fixing of atmospheric nitrogen and prevention of erosion; thank you cover crop!

Edible Greens Can Thrive in Winter

In addition to cover crop, farmers can harvest a wide variety of delectable winter vegetables. We succession plant, meaning that we start seeds every week to 10 days year-round except for late December and early January.

Now is an excellent time to sow salad mixes and cooking greens. Purchasing transplants from the nursery will provide stellar food all winter. Greenhouse space becomes especially precious this time of year because so many incredible winter crops can be grown in the shelter of hoops and covering. If you had a summer garden of any kind, clear out the debris and get going on some winter food!

If you gave a heavy feeder like cannabis plenty to eat, there is enough nutrient left in the soil to grow your food crop this winter without any supplementals. Food crop or cover crop, growing something out of your soil will help to prevent nutrient runoff and will stabilize the soil, reducing erosion.

How Our Farm Handled Run-Off Issues

As farmers, we have a duty to soil and water as the body and lifeblood. We must keep the soil where it belongs and maintain our outflows; water leaving the farm should be slow moving and free of silt or nutrients.

On our farm, we found drainage to be an issue on the terraces we’ve carved into the steep slope, so we sunk 3-inch perforated drain pipe on horizontals with a center-slope 4-inch vertical that dumps out into a straw-filled basin. As the basin fills and overflows, the outflow is filtered by the straw. We check dam the flow below the straw basin multiple times as it moves down the slope so that the water doesn’t gather speed and enters the creek below our property in a mellow, clean stream.

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