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Healing Lake Erie: Cover crops for farms and home gardens Featured

The last of the tomatoes have been harvested from home gardens, the pumpkins and squash are nearly done and fall garden clean-up has begun. It is time for composting garden waste or hauling it to a community garden waste and leaf collection site. Bare soil sits exposed to the elements for most of the late fall, winter and early spring across Ottawa County, subject to the same erosion and run-off that commercial farmers combat.

This year the Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District has assistance for the home gardener, just as they provided cost-share assistance to 16 farmers for applying cover crops to land within the Portage River watershed in Ottawa County.  The SWCD was awarded the grant through the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion and Sediment Control to help reduce the phosphorus flow into Lake Erie. Phosphorus is a major contributor to the toxic algae bloom that poses a serious health hazard to people and animals and negatively impacts the fishery and economy of the area. 

Sowing cover crops by air

Sowing cereal rye by airplane is a cost-effective method for farmers to lay down a cover crop. Other cover crops that are being used are oil seed radishes and Austrian peas. Farmers kill off the cover crop in the spring by spraying with an herbicide or rolling and smashing the vegetation. Over the winter the cover crops have held the soil in place, have kept weeds at bay, have provided nutrients and nitrogen for the soil, have added organic material to the soil and have significantly reduced runoff of phosphorus and other chemicals. The farmer can then sow spring crops over the cover crops, maintaining the soil and nutrients and preserving the benefits of no-till farming. 

Mike Libben and Becky Simpson of the Ottawa SWCD are encouraging home gardeners to implement the same techniques by sowing cover crops. The seed can be sewn in the home garden by broadcasting it by hand or by lightly tilling it into the soil. In the spring, the cover crop can be tilled under, cut down or smashed and rolled. 

Give your garden the gift of a winter coat. It will reward you with richer, looser soil, fewer weeds and less run-off, and Lake Erie will thank you, too. 

Ottawa SWCD is making available packets of cover crops at no charge to the home gardener. For more information or for your free seeds, contact Libben or Simpson at Ottawa SWCD, at 419 898-1595.

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