When you bite into a piece of Frog Hollow Farm fruit, and the juice is dripping down your chin, healthy soil is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But that’s exactly where that juicy piece of fruit begins – in the soil. And one way we improve soil health is by planting cover crops.
What are cover crops?
Cover crops are plants that flourish across the orchard floor. We let whatever is in the seedbed grow wild. And on select acreage, we intentionally plant cover crops under a Natural Resource Conservation Service program called EQIP (short for Environmental Quality Incentives Program). The benefits of cover crops, which look like weeds to most people, are quite impressive. They play a major role in regenerative farming practices and the work we are doing to offset the effects of climate change.
Cover crops are some of the hardest-working plants on the farm. They help us:
- Reduce runoff and erosion
- Reduce soil compaction
- Add organic matter to the soil
- Keep nutrients, like carbon and nitrogen, in the soil
- Foster the microbes that feed our trees
- Keep the soil porous and trap water in the soil
- Attract beneficial insects and wildlife that help us with pest management
- Attract pollinators, like bees
Can cover crops reduce the need for fertilizer?
In theory, yes, cover crops can help reduce the need for fertilizer. Take the beans, peas and vetch that we have intentionally planted on 84 acres of our farm as an example. Beans, peas and vetch are legumes – that fix nitrogen in the soil. They take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it to plant-available nitrogen that our trees can take up. These cover crops – and the other grasses that grow wild across the farm – are part of our holistic fertilization strategy. They do a good job of keeping nitrogen – and phosphorus – in the soil.
But cover crops can’t do it all. Yes, encouraging cover crops to grow improves soil health. We also rely on our fertilization plan, which includes annual applications of gypsum and potash. And we lay down tons and tons of compost throughout the year too.
As you can see, fertilization is more like a symphony, and less like a monologue. Every element – including our humble cover crops – has an important role to play.