It sounds kind of strange, the term “green manure,” but it's really a golden concept. They call animal manure “black gold” because it has magical properties for land that needs help. Green manure is green gold – and it's not because it generates cash. Green manure is plant material that can be used to revitalize soil just like manure can.
The soil here at Windy Woods needs a lot of help. Frankly, Scott and I have a vision that's going to be decades in the making. I'm used to that because I have a vision for my children, too, and that vision is a decades-long vision. Just like it takes time and energy to raise up our children, it will take time and energy to make Windy Woods into the place we know it can be.
We know we need to start with the land. Many pioneers of sustainable agriculture – the likes of Joel Salatin, Allan Nation, Gene Logsdon, and their contemporaries – say that when you're pasturing animals you're really growing grass.
Animals revitalize poor soils and turn what was more like wasteland into lush, green areas. Our chickens are a first step in that direction, hopefully to be followed next year with at least two goats and possibly feeder pigs and a milk cow. We'll know more about all of that in the spring.
For now we need to work on our land with just the black gold our chickens produce… so green manure is especially important. This year will also hopefully teach us a lot about cover crop so we can keep beautiful pastures in years to come. We'll also be putting in a hoophouse soon, and green manure will be important in there to get it ready for a spring crop (since none of our soil is good, it's going over poor soil). I do hope we'll be able to get some composted manure for the hoop house, but not counting on it.
Planning Our Cover
Grandma Evie suggested seeding our garden over with winter rye. Being the total farm newbies we are, we didn't even know where to get winter rye. Store employees at Lowe's and Tractor Supply both suggested McGough's in Traverse City, so we stopped by there as part of our adventures last Saturday (more to come on that in another post).
I was nervous about going to McGough's simply because we are totally new to farming and we don't know much. I was expecting to get a little bit of an “old guard” attitude because it definitely looks like your traditional, established feed and seed store.
Happily I was totally wrong and the associate who helped us at McGough's was not only polite, but very knowledgeable. His eyes kind of lit up when he realized we needed to seed a pasture cover crop and not a lawn, and he immediately took us to a section of seeds I'd completely overlooked on first pass at the store. He gave us quite a few good suggestions and we finally decided upon a winter rye / field pea seeding for the front of the house.
I've read a lot about cover crops at this point, but still find I feel so nervous. I'm hoping to put in a baby orchard in the area we're seeding this year, in addition to the garden beds that are already there. I feel scared I'll do something wrong, but I realize that the best cure for that is to just get out there and do it… and learn from my mistakes.
The Expected Outcome
The hope is that we'll get a nice cover crop this fall with a mix of the field peas and winter rye. The field peas are legumes, meaning they're “nitrogen fixers.” There's also some scattered chicken manure in the front where we'll be seeding, which has nitrogen in it too. Since the cover crop isn't a food crop, I'm not too worried about the chicken manure being less than a year old. I'm hoping it will work as it does for established pasture.
The snow will fall, covering the cover crop for the winter. In the spring we'll probably get another growth of the rye, and we'll turn both the field peas and the rye into the ground. Actually, our hope is to slash down the rye and have the chickens do at least part of the turning under, since we don't yet have anything to turn it under ourselves!!
This returns the fertility and nitrogen to the soil. We'll also mulch over as much of the lawn as we can, which gives additional organic matter to help build the soil. I would like to put in a second cover crop of clover in the spring, and our baby orchard will be planted right into the clover field (the clover won't go on the garden area, just the orchard area). The clover should come back every year and continue to help fix nitrogen for our plants.
With the front yard started, we'll get our goats and other animals moving into the brush area that we're hoping to fence off into pasture (5 acres, which will be subdivided into pastures for managed grazing). But more on that to come as we figure that out and learn more 🙂