September 2020
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Cultivating  502

Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District

“Always include local nature - the land, the water, the air, the native creatures - within the membership of the community.”
— Wendell Berry, Conserving Communities, 1995
We hope you are staying safe at home during this pandemic. Our office will remain closed to public visitors until it is safe again to open. Staff are working remotely and are available through the phone and email. We will check our voicemail weekly and get back to you promptly. Please be patient as we navigate how to serve you while also following safety protocols. 

Geri Johnson, Administrative Secretary,
Erin James, Environmental Educator,
Lilias Pettit-Scott, Urban Agriculture Specialist,
A fall sown cover crop of cereal rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover and winter peas growing in the spring.
Plant Cover Crops to Protect Winter Soils

Believe it or not, the soil never, ever, ever wants to be bare. The billions of microbes that live in your soil need to be fed all the time. Where do they get their food? Live plant roots! Our vegetable crops thrive when the microbes in our soils are plentiful and diverse. Without food for those microbes, they begin dying off, and come spring, their numbers will be much lower than when your garden was full of plants. It takes time to build the microbe community back up but if you keep plants growing in your soil at all times, those microbes will stick around.

If you are not planning to grow crops in your garden throughout the fall and winter, I have a recommendation for how you can improve your soil's fertility over the winter without doing any work out in the cold!

Cover crop is a plant grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil. Cover crops are typically grasses, legumes or deep rooting plants. Plants like clover, rye grass, winter peas, vetch, and turnips are typical in a winter cover crop mix. But cover crops can be grown any time of year. They are planted when a farmer or gardener is no longer growing food crops, like over the winter, or between rows of crops where the soil is bare. 

Cover crops perform many jobs in the garden. They protect the soil from erosion, reduce soil compaction, increase soil fertility by adding nutrients back into the soil and they provide food to feed the many microorganisms living underground. Cover crops also suppress weed growth and provide habitat for beneficial insects. How do cover crops do all these things?
  • Erosion: Soil erosion occurs most in our gardens when the soil is left bare with no plants growing. The leaves of cover crops slow down the rate at which precipitation hits the ground and the roots increase the absorption of precipitation into the soil. 
  • Nutrients: Legumes (peas, clover, beans) have a beneficial relationship with a specific type of bacteria in the soil. The bacteria lives on the plant's roots and feeds from the plant while storing nitrogen into little nodes on the roots. The nitrogen is made available to our new spring crops when we leave the roots in the soil after mowing down the crop, allowing it to break down. This also increases the organic matter content in the soil which improves soil texture and soil health.
  • Soil Compaction: Ideal soils are made up of 25% water and 25% air. That air and water needs pathways through the soil in order to be available to our plants' roots and microorganisms. The roots of cover crops provide those pathways when no other plants are growing in the garden.
  • Weed Suppressants: Many of our cover crops are fast-growing plants. We plant them in the fall after we clean out our garden beds so they can grow over the winter. They shoot up in the spring once the weather warms and the days get longer. This growth blocks the growth of common weeds making it much easier to start your spring garden. 
Planting cover crop is a quick and easy process and provides benefits all winter to your garden. In our area, it is best to plant cover crop seed by the end of September.
  1. Prepare Site. Clean out any weeds from your garden. If you have plants still producing you can leave them in the ground and plant around them.
  2. Lightly rake the ground to create a seed bed.
  3. Broadcast your cover crop seed evenly throughout your garden bed and lightly rake it in.
  4. Water the space to moisten seed and then relax!
Allow the cover crops to grow throughout the winter and into spring. If you can, wait long enough for the plants to flower in order to maximize the nitrogen fixation. Once you are ready to plant into your garden in the spring, choose either of the following methods to cut down your cover crop.
Cut-and-mulch: Cut the shoots down using a scythe, sickle or mower and leave them as mulch on your garden. DO NOT pull up the plants. You can then plant your seedlings right into the ground, leaving the mulch around the new plant.
  • Cut-and-mulch before transplanted crops (tomatoes, peppers, etc.).
  • Advantages: Best for soil quality (reduces disturbance); mulch conserves moisture and reduces weed growth; less labor.
  • Disadvantages: You MUST wait until the cover crop is flowering or it could grow back and become weedy.
Digging In: After cutting down the crop, use a shovel to chop the plant and work them into the top 3-5 inches of soil.
  • Dig in cover crops for a fine seedbed (wait 10 days before seeding after digging in).
  • Advantages: Best for rapid release of nitrogen from the cover crop.
  • Disadvantages: less weed control than cut-and-mulch; more work!
NOTE: Be sure to cut down your cover crop before the seeds form. Waiting until seed heads form means the cover crops can come back and become weeds in your garden.

Lilias Pettit-Scott
Urban Agriculture Specialist

Exploring Kentucky's Mighty Oaks

Art and Writing Contest for children from 1st - 12th grade
The Jefferson County Conservation District would like to invite you and your students to participate in the Annual Art and Writing Contest sponsored by the Kentucky Farm Bureau and the Kentucky Association of Conservation Districts!  

Jefferson County School Teachers and Parents: 
The topic for this year is “Exploring Kentucky's Mighty Oaks”.  The contest is open to all schools in Jefferson County, this includes public, private and home schools. The art contest is for students in grades 1st-5th and the writing contest is for students in grades 6th -12th. Downloadable forms are available at the LINK along with more information about the contest. The deadline for entries is December 1st.

To learn more about the contest please contact our Environmental Educator, Erin James, at A monetary award will be given to the winner in each contest. We can't wait to see how your kids express their excitement for the trees in our community!
Copyright © 2020 Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District, All rights reserved.

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