Wandering through the rows of vibrant fruit trees at Frog Hollow Farm is truly a magical experience - gazing upwards to observe the ripening fruit, picturesque blue sky, and gorgeously green leaves. But what makes our orchard so special is not just the organic fruit adorning the high branches of the trees. Follow your gaze downwards from the canopy and you’ll be greeted with an abundance of lush green grasses that carpet the ground. Unlike conventional farms that may leave bare ground between trees, we make sure that the land is covered by various plants that keep the land healthy and root systems strong. This natural cover of plants is aptly called cover crops, or plants that are grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil, both between crops and on fallow fields.
Benefits Beneath Us
Besides making our orchard look lush and full of color, cover crops are doing work in the soil that one can’t see just by looking. Cover crops not only protect the land, but give back to the earth as well. Increased water retention, decreased erosion, improved soil aggregate stability, and higher levels of organic matter are just some of the advantages that cover crops can provide to a farm and its produce. By letting cover crops grow, their roots can establish in the earth, which transfers nutrients and water through different layers of the soil. These roots also make perfect homes for microscopic communities of fungi, microbes, and bacteria that help to cycle nutrients within the soil and enrich the ground.
These cover crops not only provide benefits to our soil right under our feet, but also on top of it. Some cover crops even attract native pollinators that keep our farm ecosystem thriving - no wonder there is an abundance of bees and butterflies at Frog Hollow Farm! When our cover crops grow thick and tall within the orchard, our team goes through the rows of trees with mowers and weed whackers to chop them down, resulting in a powerful green mulch. As this layer decomposes in place, it adds organic matter to the ground, nourishing all of our trees.
Many farms will till their soil continually, which destroys cover crop roots and these beneficial microbe communities along with them. Since we at Frog Hollow practice minimal tilling and mow cover crops into mulch, we receive all of the benefits from these tiny powerhouses that others may overlook.
Covering our Tracks
As a committed organic, regenerative grower, we have always used cover crops for their natural benefits to the orchard, but also to solidify our role as a steward of the land. We let whatever is in the seedbed come up naturally - what many other farmers may consider to be weeds. Along with these helpful, naturally -occurring cover crops, we have also adopted a strategy of planting chosen cover crops. We love nitrogen fixing plants, like beans, peas, and vetch, that take up nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform it into a form that trees and plants can use. By using a blend of these leguminous plants combined with grasses like barley, oats, and wheat, we keep our soil ecosystem thriving and resilient. Our agricultural strategies aim to leave the land better than it was found, protecting not only our beloved trees, but all of the native biodiversity that also calls this farm home, even in the face of adversity.
Dealing with Drought
As we all know from scorching temperatures and lack of rainfall, California is currently experiencing a historic drought and threats of fire appear closer to home every day. Hot, bare ground can kill those valuable microbe communities within the soil. So what can our cover crops do to help with these water woes? Thankfully, a lot! The insulating green mulch around the trees from cover crop trimmings keeps moisture in the ground during these harsh summer months. The ground stays cool and covered, and there is less water lost through evaporation. Combined with our micro sprinkler system, our trees only get as much water as they need, preserving our microbe friends and avoiding wasteful watering through the summer.
So the next time you pass a farm, look closer between the rows. That cover of green vegetation is providing a plenty of services to the plants, wildlife, and soil - helping to create a healthy farm ecosystem and delicious fruits for you and me!