Cover Crops

Cover Crops

by Jaime Reyes '20

With an ever-growing population, those within agriculture are constantly forced to search for new ideas and innovations to remedy the food shortage at hand. From genetically modifying to using unconventionally-shaped trellis to support tomatoes, each of them started from somewhere and added a unique style to the gardening community. One idea that has gained energy in recent years is the use of cover crops.

Before delving into this we need to put a few matters on the table: 

  1. What you probably learned in your first-grade biology class is that photosynthesis only requires water, carbon dioxide and energy from the sun. While this is true, it only scrapes the surface of the intricacies of plant anatomy and physiology. It is important to note that soil is a living matter and its quality directly affects the growth rate and health of plants. See, soil is composed of various clays, mineral deposits and debris. In addition to these inorganics, it also contains bacterium, mulm, fungi, symbiotic protists and a plethora of other beneficial organisms. Each of these play an important role in the growth of plants.
  2. Symbiosis is key to enriching growth patterns of plants. Symbiosis refers to a beneficial relationship between two organisms. One example of this can be seen between mycorrhizae (fungus) and plant roots. The mycorrhizae help to provide nutrients to the roots and add surface area, increasing absorption capabilities. Another example can be seen by bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen to a compound that can readily be used by plants. Millions and millions of these relationships exist; these are just a couple that come to mind.
  3. Alleopathy is more than just a theory — it’s real! The idea behind this is that plants communicate with one another through chemical compounds and hormones. These communications can be both positive and negative, it just depends on the species in question. For example, an experiment done by Kadioglu I, an agricultural faculty member at Gaziosmanpasa University in Turkey, showed that chickpea seed germination was inhibited by extracts of Matricaria chamomilla L by 22.5 percent. Contrary to this, the same experiment done to chickpea seeds using Reseda lutea L extracts stimulated the germination by 95 percent, when compared to the control. This goes to show that the plants surrounding your cash crops can be more than just an eyesore — and should be treated as such.
  4. Soil degradation refers to the depletion of nutrients and viability of soils. Whether it be from overuse, erosion or changes in alkalinity, soils have a timeline until they’re no longer conducive to a growing environment. This can be a natural occurrence, such as water trickling down the water column and stealing nutrients along the way. Regardless of the cause, one simple solution to this is just to have more plants. Desertification is when a fertile area is no longer fertile due to environmental factors like drought, deforestation or improper agricultural practices. When large root systems are removed, the ground becomes more porous and doesn’t hold up as well to the elements. In all of this, one common theme is that each factor targets plants, which leads to infertility. Suffice to say, if you want healthy soil, you need to keep plants — not pull them.

A general idea for cover crops is a plant that is purposefully planted to deter the spread of pest weeds and benefit the growth of the intended plantings. To put things into perspective, imagine this analogy. You have a recently-built house with a nice roof. Out of nowhere, a giant comes and starts to pull pieces of the roof apart, leaving you with a broken roof. Instead of adding on renovations to your recently built house, you now need to spend time, money and energy on repairing the damage done by the giant. In this analogy, the roof can be thought of as top soil and the giant as farmers pulling weeds from their garden. When we disturb the soil, growth in our plants halt which in turn lessens our overall yield. Uprooting plants disrupts the activities happening below the surface and starts the relationship building process all over.

To remedy these unwanted plants and the repercussions associated with pulling them, farmers began to plant select species in the hopes of making the soil as hospitable as possible — untouched by human hands. Common traits of favored cover crops include high nitrogen-fixing capabilities, lateral growth by means of rhizome, natural die-off/self-replicating and steady growth patterns. These characteristics are often seen within the various legume and grass species. Beans work well as cover crops for many reasons. They’re good at converting atmospheric nitrogen to a product readily used by plants (between 30 and 80 pounds per plant, per acre), attract beneficial bugs, don’t require too much attention and reduce erosion. Additionally, they can carpet well if care is taken in their planting, therefore lessening any competition for the cash crop. To top that off, beans can also double as a cash crop, essentially killing two birds with one stone.

Whether the discussion at hand is the invention of the wheel or the practice of irrigation systems, each invention and innovation has helped to culminate society as we know it. Living in an ever-growing system, famine, drought and other inequalities are going to continue to grow at an exponential rate. Now, more than ever, we need to band together to discover the best methods, so we can secure our future. One tiny step in the right direction is to begin using cover crops, but don’t let me sway you. Take the plunge and find out for yourself!