Last year, we implemented a new cropping system that totally reworked the way we plant some of our crops; we harvest mulch from cover crops and spread it on the soil to provide a thick grownd cover that can control weeds and keep the soil moist. Then we plant directly into the mulch with our modified transplanter. This system is an attempt to adapt to the disruptions we are seeing in our climate by helping to supercharge our soil health, and act as a sponge to absorb water when it’s too wet and release it when it’s too dry. We had a number of challenges with this new system last season, so we applied for, and received, a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to try and work out some of our challenges. This week, we started planting our mulched crops, and also started taking data for the project
We harvest mulch with our collection flail mower; we took several samples of the mulch from a known area (the width of the mower times 20 feet,) and then dumped it on a tarp to weigh it
Each sample is weighed, and a subsample is mailed off to a forage lab to measure the nitrogen and dry weight of the sample, so that we know what we are applying to each field. The size and nutrient content of the mulch will change rapidly, especially this time of year, when things are growing rapidly.
The mulch is then spread on the field with a manure spreader
And we planted tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash right in to the mulch. We thought that we experienced some problems with nitrogen tie-up in the mulched plots last year; there is plenty of nitrogen in the mulch, but it doesn’t become available to the plant right away, and any fertilizer we put on just sits on the soil surface until rain washes it in. We are taking soil samples that will track the release of nitrogen into the soil over the course of the season to get a better idea of what is happening. We will be also measuring changes in soil quality over the course of the three years of the project, to hopefully document improvements. We will be sure to keep you posted as the project continues.