Summer cover crop of buckwheat, corn, pumpkin and mustard. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Cover crops and marauding birds

Cover crops perform many functions in the garden.

By Mary Lowther

The only part of my garden that doesn’t go through winter protected by cover crops is the section filled with overwintering vegetables. The rest I’m sowing with fall rye and fava beans that I will dig under next spring before they go to seed. These “cover crops” are just two of several other grains and legumes that, when combined, form terrific additions to the vegetable patch.

Cover crops perform many functions in the garden. They add their own biomass, both roots and everything above ground, to the soil. They exhude chemicals inimicable to diseases and infestations that can accumulate in the soil and attack your crop. Their roots hold onto nutrients and soil that would be washed away by winter rains and then rot in the spring to aerate the soil, creating a welcoming environment for beneficial organisms. Cover crops also help create absorbent soil that retains water and helps us through the summer drought. Grains form massive root systems that hold soil well and legumes incorporate nitrogen from the air into their roots, so when the plants are dug under next spring without removing anything from them, this nitrogen becomes available to our vegetable crops.

When I’ve sown cover crops in the past I’ve hoed them in lightly and left the ground unprotected, but in Mesachie this just produced a feeding frenzy of stellar jays and juncos that picked every last bed clean. I erected hoops over the bed and laid a spun cover cloth called Remay over this to keep out the marauders; one cover had a very small slit about one foot long that I never thought a bird would bother with, but they still managed to squeeze through to negate my efforts and chow down.

This past summer I was sowing a bed to cover crop, a combination of buckwheat, mustard, corn and pumpkin seeds because that’s what I had left over. My hoops and cover cloth were all in use on other beds, so once I had sown the crop I pulled spent vegetation over top, hoping that my fine feathered fiends would find it too much work to reach the seeds, and it succeeded, so that’s what I’m doing with my winter cover crops. I’ve cut down the summer plantings and dug them under while still succulent, sown fall rye with fava beans, raked them in and covered the whole shebang with the straw I’d been using to cover the paths. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed, because if this works it’s a whole lot easier (and cheaper!) than getting out the hoops and Remay.

I’m not adding fertilizer or compost. It is too valuable, so I only use it in spring and summer when the rain won’t wash it out so quickly. I look at cover crops as a combination of fertilizer and compost anyway. Once these crops are up and growing, I’ll remove the detritus and toss it into the compost heap because I’ve found that slugs and sow bugs proliferate over the winter in the nice, snug quarters it creates.

While I wrote the above, the jays and juncos came back with reinforcements, pecking away through the detritus and eating my cover crops! What worked this summer appears to be less effective at the end of September. Were they better fed in July and simply less desperate? Were they off migrating somewhere else? I can’t be sure. Clearly their travel patterns and dietary preferences should be observed and jotted down in my gardening notebook. After all, the wise hostess prepares for company!

Mrs. Premise, the house feline, obviously has not learned that cats eat birds. I took her out and plopped her amidst them, but she just sat there uninterested, licking her face while the birds continued their feast. Perhaps our pets are becoming oversocialized; John’s dog Monkey ignores the rabbits in our garden across the street. Maybe they just like the company.

The cat having retired, I realized I had to take the situation into my own paws and laid a combination of wire screen, netting and plastic overtop of the beds in hopes that this will deter them. If this doesn’t work I’ll have to admit defeat and get out the hoops and Remay again. Cover crop is not cheap and there’s a short window of opportunity before the cold weather sets in and halts their growth. The jays and juncos have come back, and apparently been defeated, but it may be too early to crow.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

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