Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a $70 million investment into a Clemson-South Carolina State partnership “to increase the acreage and number of farmers using cover crops, prescribed grazing, reduced tillage, and other conservation practices that will not only reduce greenhouse gases but also improve water quality, biodiversity, and increase the productivity and well-being of our greater farming and foresting communities across the state.” The partnership and initial investment have evolved into Climate-Smart Grown in SC (CSGSC), a program incentivizing South Carolina farmers to implement selected climate-smart production practices. This program is a big deal, but a lot is going on, so it may have been lost in the shuffle for many of us.
Climate-Smart Grown in SC Leafy Greens Commodities Team members presented information about their program at a recent Clemson Extension Horticulture Team meeting. They have quickly gotten up and running in six months, filling their first open enrollment session.
What I found most interesting about the leafy green practices they are teaching is that they are easily accessible for home gardeners to implement in their gardens. The practices are so easy that even a lazy gardener like me already does them.
Here are the three essential practices the leafy greens program teaches.
- Plant a cover crop during your gardening offseason.
- Avoid disturbing the soil as much as possible.
It’s SO easy, right!?
Plant a cover crop during your gardening offseason – Most of our gardens are done for the season; even the ones still holding on will be done soon. Once the plants have given all they can, pull them up and throw them into the compost pile if they are still relatively healthy. If they are diseased, dispose of them offsite or far away from your garden.
The next task is to plant a cover crop to put your beds to rest. This doesn’t require a big production. Rake the soil surface to remove debris, sow the seed, and keep it moist until it’s established (typically a few weeks to a month).
CSGSC says this about cover crop benefits, “Cover crops help reduce soil erosion, raise soil moisture holding capacity, improve soil structure, reduce weed seed banks, increase soil fertility and organic matter, and support pollinators and other beneficial organisms.” Many others agree (HGIC 1252, Cover Crops, USDA Soil Health, & SARE, Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations.)
Avoid disturbing the soil as much as possible. – Though this concept seems an equally simple task (and it is, don’t worry), it requires a little more thought and nuance.
Garden soils range in varying states of health. Some are healthy and require very little mechanical work to be productive. If your soil falls into this category, plant your cover crop or mulch the beds and call it a season.
However, if your soil seems like it was once a roadbed for a major interstate highway, it is likely compacted. Consider doing a little more work before planting a cover crop or mulching for the year to improve soil compaction and increase organic matter.
Once soil compaction is relieved, reducing tillage “can enhance soil structure, reduce erosion, promote biological activity, increase weed seed predation, and allow soil to retain more organic matter. Because of more available soil moisture and organic content, this can reduce long-term production costs while increasing long-term productivity.” For more information on these benefits, visit Reducing Tillage in Your Garden and Soil Compaction in the Urban Landscape.
Mulch. – Lazy gardeners should mulch as the bare minimum to protect and improve soil health. Bare soil exposed to sunlight, extreme temperatures, and rainfall causes soil to degrade rapidly. CSGSC advises, “Mulching, or covering the surface of soil with a protective layer of organic or inorganic material, helps maintain soil temperatures, retain moisture, suppress weeds, and reduce erosion.” Visit Mulching Herbs, Vegetables, and Fruit Trees In The Florida-Friendly Edible Landscape and Mulching Vegetables for more information about mulching vegetable gardens.
September is ideal to start planning next spring’s vegetable garden. An excellent first step is growing a cover crop or mulching to protect and build your soil for the next planting season. Start implementing these practices now to reduce or eliminate the need to till the soil and realize even more benefits from these climate-smart practices.