Cover Crop for Resiliency

July in the garden.

July is generally a transition time in the garden—most early crops are finished producing by early July and ready to be pulled out, opening up space for succession crops. We usually replace early peas, greens (bok choy, mustard, lettuce), and roots (radish, beets) with fall crops like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots, bush beans, and daikon radish. In late August and early September, we’ll do one last round of succession planting for late fall/early spring greens. But for now, the steady rain the past few days has imposed a moratorium on planting. So, the garden is enjoying a growth spurt, and even in the middle of busy July, there’s time for a quick blog post.

Nothing stays the same

Spreading out the Garlic to dry before cleaning, braiding and storage.

Gardening is so unpredictable these days. Even the routine milestones that used to be consistent markers of the garden season can’t be taken for granted. We have always begun harvesting our garlic scapes (the flower stalk, which is typically cut off to encourage the plant to focus on bulb development, and because they’re delicious!) towards the end of the first week of June…sometime around the 5th–8th. This year, we didn’t harvest our first garlic scapes until the summer solstice, June 21. So, I wasn’t sure when to expect the bulbs to be ready for harvest, but they were right on schedule, even a little on the early side, and we pulled all 450 bulbs on Friday evening July 13, before things started to get wet.

How do we plan and prepare for such unpredictable garden seasons? The best strategy I can think of (in addition to working to change broader environmental policy and practices) is to build resiliency. We’ve been more committed to mulching, to mitigate against temperature and moisture extremes. We’ve long been using rain barrels to capture water. And, for many years, we’ve used a strategy more common to farmers than backyard gardeners—cover cropping.

Cover crops are a way to let plants do the work for us—they can prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss, attract pollinators, build nitrogen, add organic matter, and help control pest and disease problems. When you have a small garden, it can be hard to figure out how to incorporate a covercrop, because it means giving up food-growing space—cover crops are planted to feed the garden, not the gardener. And since it’s not a common backyard practice, it can be intimidating to figure out what to plant when.

Follow Garlic Plantings with A Midsummer Cover
If you grow garlic, you have an easy opportunity to start incorporating cover crops, because now is the perfect time for a mid-summer cover crop. And since you’ve just loosened the soil in harvesting the garlic, the prep work is already done. All you have to do is broadcast some seed, rake it in lightly and let the crop do the rest!

2013 photo of our raised bed vegetable garden.

Our main vegetable garden consists of long raised beds, 5’x25′ with 2′ paths in between. We plant an entire bed to garlic, fitting 450 heads (9 rows of 50, about 6” apart in all directions). About 80 of the biggest, healthiest bulbs get hung to save for seed for the fall planting of next year’s crop. That leaves us about 370 heads, enough for our two house collective of 12 people to use a whole head of garlic each day! And we do love garlic…but that’s also enough to share, and we often give some away.

Having an entire bed empty is a perfect opportunity to introduce a cover crop into our rotation. We choose a crop that will put on lots of growth by fall but is tender enough to be killed by the winter cold. When spring comes, we have a bed full of mulch ready for seedlings to be transplanted or for direct seeding larger seeds. It’s perfect for tomatoes or squash, which will also benefit from the soil improvements.

What to plant and how?
There are several options in the northeast, depending on your planting window what your goals are (weed smothering, erosion control, pest control, etc), but we always try to follow our garlic crop with a classic oat/pea cover. It’s a common practice to combine a nitrogen fixing legume, like peas, which benefit the soil but have dainty roots and don’t produce a lot of biomass, with a grass that does triple duty by providing support for the legume, holding soil with its mat-forming roots and providing lots of biomass for the compost pile, or to be left in place and used as mulch. Oat/pea is a great combination this time of year because there’s enough time for it to grow to full maturity—getting crops to flower—and be killed by the cold before setting seed.

Oats and peas 1 week after planting.

We harvested our garlic on a Friday night and had a heavy rain that Monday. The following weekend was busy with community events and my daughter’s 3rd birthday party, but when I saw a forecast of rain everyday for the next week, I knew a covercrop had to be seeded that weekend if it was going to happen before August. My 3-year old loves to help seed, and broadcasting cover crops, which doesn’t require a lot of precision (“Just make sure it goes in the bed and not on the path!”), is a perfect opportunity for her to help. So, between helping out at the Worker’s Center of CNY annual soccer tournament in the morning and attending the potluck before an evening house concert fundraiser being hosted at our collective, we aerated the soil with our broad fork (which she also loves helping me use), smoothed it out with the rake, scattered our seed, lightly raked it in and waited for the rain to do the rest.

Winter wheat and vetch being cut in early May.

Later in the season you’d want to choose a winter hardy cover crop, but it’ll mean more work in the spring. Winter hardy cover crops survive the winter and finish growing in the early spring. Once about half the crop is flowering, cut it off at the base and chop it up with clippers, letting it dry down into mulch, or dig it and turn the roots under, waiting a couple of weeks to plant so that incorporated plant matter has a chance to decompose. I’ve planted winter wheat or winter rye and hairy vetch (which gets a beautiful purple flower in the spring) as late as mid-September and seen good fall growth, excellent winter survival, and full maturity by early May. A good option to keep the bed covered for heat loving crops that won’t be planted until the end of May, but definitely not a good option for an area that’s intended for early spring crops.

Resources and Seed Sources
Fortunately, I had remembered to get seed this spring—sourcing cover crop seed (sometimes listed as “farm seed”) is not always easy. Locally, Lee’s Feed store often carries oats, field peas, clovers, rye, and wheat, but it’s not always in stock, so call ahead and ask. Online, Johnny’s, Fedco, and other regional seed sources are also great cover crop seed sources, carrying a wide variety, including premixed assortments, but shipping adds cost.

Oat and Pea cover crop mix.

Seeding rates listed by seed companies and on cover crop seed packets are often designed for farm scale planting, generally done by mechanical seeders. Broadcasting can result in less precise seeding and less consistent soil contact/coverage, and home gardens sometimes have more loss to squirrels and other critters. It’s a good rule of thumb to double the amount of seed recommended to get a good cover crop stand. For home gardens, you’re usually using a very small amount of seed anyway, given that this type of seed is generally sold by the pound. And it’s much cheaper to buy larger quantities. We often buy 5 lbs or more and store it in a cool, dry, dark spot to last for a few seasons rather than purchasing smaller quantities each year. I used about 1 ¼ lbs of a mix of oats and field peas to seed our 125 square foot bed.

Here’s a great guide to cover crops from MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) and a more local resource produced a few years ago by a Cornell graduate student to help community gardens incorporate cover crops. In fact, although it’s no longer active, her research, documented at The Garden Ecology Project, is still a great resource for gardeners.

Welcoming Berry Season

Fridge full of berries

2018 was a late spring. The latest I can remember in 20 years of gardening in Syracuse. We didn’t make our first planting in the vegetable garden until Earth Day weekend…a full two weeks later than any other year that I can recall. But the strawberries came right on time.

Our patch of Honeoyes began fruiting lightly the first week of June and by the 2nd and 3rd weeks we were harvesting 20-30 lbs/week from our 40’x5′ patch. They’re finally starting to slow—we’ve probably only got another week or so of berries. But by then, the black raspberries should be ripe…

We may not be able to grow local mangos or bananas, but our northern climate does allow us to easily grow an amazing abundance of incredibly delicious and highly nutritious berries and other small fruits. It’s an easy, low-cost way to start producing some of your own fruit, and they’ll start fruiting within 1-2 years of planting. Berries are expensive to buy, especially organic, but easy to grow and maintain even for beginners. Pruning, trellising, and care are all very simple to learn. They’re also easy to propagate, many spreading by runners or suckers and/or rooting quickly from cuttings, so you can often come by plants for free or for a work trade in a neighbor’s garden. Plus, homegrown berries can be picked fully ripe, no need to worry about them getting squished during handling, packing or transport, which means you can pick them at the peak of their flavor.

There are so many types of berries, but below are tips on how to get started with some of our favorites! Or join us for our Summer Berry Pruning workshop on Saturday, July 14.

A perfectly ripe strawberry

We started our strawberry patch in 2016 with 50 plants purchased for $18 from Fedco. Our original 40′ row produced runners to completely fill a 40’x5′ area with plants every 3-4” by the second year. A conservative estimate of this year’s harvest is about 70 lbs. U-pick organic strawberries have been $2.50 per pound the past few years, so that makes our harvest worth at least $175 this year alone. Since we fertilize only with our compost and mulch with leaves, our only other expenses were a roll of 9 gauge wire for cutting wire hoops ($6) and a roll of bird netting ($14) that we drape over the hoops to keep the squirrels out.

Mixed Berry Shortcake – a classic way to enjoy fresh berries!

In Syracuse, there are so many wild black raspberry plants, you can likely find them for free—you may even already have some. We pruned the wild ones in our yard to make them more productive and easier to pick. For raspberries and blackberries, the challenge isn’t in getting them to grow so much as preventing them from taking over and maximizing berry production rather than growth of a tangled mass of impenetrable thorns.

We started our patches of red raspberries and blackberries courtesy of the OCSWCD annual spring tree sale—each available at 10 canes for just $15. Last year we canned several pints of blackberry sauce (1 cup sugar to 12 cups blackberries) and froze 3 gallons of blackberries in addition to lots of fresh eating and pies. We also dig up rogue plants every year for our spring plant sale, since the plants are vigorous and readily spread beyond their patch. We’re in the process of moving the red raspberries, which fruited nicely the first few years, but now are in decline. It’s likely a combination of decreasing sun as nearby trees have extended their canopies, and increasing size of nearby black walnut trees, whose roots and all other parts of the tree contain juglone, a chemical compound which can inhibit the growth of certain plants (black raspberries are not bothered).

Elderberry Peach Tart

We also sourced our elderberries from OCSWCD, which were priced similarly to the blackberries and raspberries…an incredible deal if you’ve looked into purchasing elsewhere. Elderberries sucker readily and can form rather large colonies, so unless you have a lot of space to fill, you probably don’t need more than a couple plants to start. Elderberry jelly is one of my favorites, and elderberry-peach pie is a real late summer treat, but we mainly use them for making elderberry syrup and cordial (a traditional medicinal drink) to take advantage of elderberry’s well-established anti-viral properties during flu season.

Currants don’t spread like the other berries in this post, but they are easy to propagate by
layering. There were neglected, overgrown red currants already on our property when we purchased it, so we just pruned and relocated them to a sunnier spot. We mostly use them in baking—little bursts of flavor in scones, muffins or pancakes. But, last year we also pureed them with water and a touch of maple syrup to make a really delicious juice. We acquired our black currants through a work trade at Frosty Morning Farm in Truxton. They’re a large-fruited variety, Titania, that make excellent sauce or jam. Gooseberries are also in the currant family. We mostly eat ours fresh, but there are some nice gooseberry chutney or jam recipes. The birds share quite a bit in the red currant harvesting, which can be tedious, so we don’t really mind. But we plan to net the elderberry, because the birds didn’t leave us much last year.

Elderberry Jelly

Berries are incredibly easy to preserve, so you can have them for baking, smoothies, jams, etc. all year round. To freeze: wash and hull berries, and arrange in a single layer on a baking tray. Place in the freezer until frozen solid, then transfer to labeled freezer bags or containers. To can: process jams, preserves or sauces in a boiling water bath, exact processing times will vary by recipe and jar size. Basic instructions for most common berries can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Want to get your own berry patch started? Or have a patch that needs a little TLC? We welcome you to join us for a workshop on Summer Berry Pruning Saturday, July 14, 10 AM to Noon.

Rhubarb Isn’t Just for Pies

Rhubarb Jam

Rhubarb is nicknamed the “pie plant”, and a classic strawberry-rhubarb tart is worth enjoying every season. But rhubarb’s unique sour flavor also blends well in savory dishes—like black beans or sweet and sour tofu. Add in that it’s cheap to buy, easy to grow, and easy to prep, and it’s no wonder there are so many posts about rhubarb these days.

Read on for 3 of our favorite ways to enjoy rhubarb at Bread & Roses!

Rhubarb jam has been a staple at B&R for years and is usually our first canning session of the season. Ginger used to be my favorite spice to add, but last year my fellow collective member Kayo swapped in star anise, and now I have a new favorite. It basically tastes like candy.

6 rounded cups diced rhubarb
1½ C sugar
3 Tbs lemon juice (bottled or fresh squeezed)
3 star anise

Finished jam waiting to be canned.

Slice large stalks in half lengthwise, then chop into small pieces. Place diced rhubarb in a ceramic or glass mixing bowl. Add the sugar and lemon juice, and stir to mix. Cover and refrigerate overnight to macerate (or let stand at room temperature for an hour).

Strain the rhubarb. Pour the collected syrup into a shallow, wide pan (a larger surface area allows the water to evaporate more quickly). Add the star anise, and bring to a boil over high heat. Continue boiling, skimming any foam, until syrup has reached jam consistency (221°F on a candy thermometer or use the plate or sheet test). Add in the diced rhubarb, and return to a boil. Simmer 5-10 minutes, skimming if necessary.

Yield: 3 half pints (To can, process half pints in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.)

Apparently I’m not the only one who thought rhubarb would make a great BBQ sauce, because I found dozens of recipes online! None of them were quite what I was looking for—I didn’t want any tomato in the recipe, so it could be more seasonal. Here’s what I came up with:


Thick and tangy rhubarb BBQ sauce!

2 Tbs canola or other light cooking oil
½ large yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 medium rhubarb stalks (3½ C diced)
¾ C apple cider vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
¼ C sucanat (or brown sugar)
¼ C honey
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 Tbs molasses
1 tsp salt
1 tsp smoked paprika
water to cover
opt: 1-2 small ripe hot peppers, diced (serranos or a habanero work well)

Heat the canola oil in a sauce pot, and add the onion. Sautee 2-3 minutes over medium heat. Add the garlic and hot pepper (if using), and sautee another 2-3 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer 45 minutes to an hour, until rhubarb is very soft. Remove from heat to puree (easiest with an immersion blender, or allow to cool a little and transfer to a regular blender). Puree until smooth—or leave it chunky, whatever you prefer. Add more water if you want a thinner sauce, or return it to the pot and continue simmering to thicken (stir frequently to prevent burning).

Yield: about 3 cups (depending on how thick you make it)

The original pink lemonade

A couple years ago, I wondered if anyone ever canned rhubarb juice (we had soooo much rhubarb). Turns out, rhubarb can be a great substitute for lemon juice…it has a really strong flavor straight, but mixed with tap water or sparkling water, it makes a uniquely refreshing summer drink. It’s so overpowering undiluted that, ironically, it’s harder to discern the rhubarb flavor. I like to mix equal parts rhubarb juice to water, but experiment with different proportions to find what you like best. For a delicious early summer cocktail, try equal parts rhubarb juice and sparkling water, and add half a shot of gin to a 4-6 oz glass. A sprig of mint or fresh fennel works well for a flavorful garnish.

diced rhubarb
water to cover
opt: sugar or honey to taste

Place the rhubarb in a sauce pot. Add the water and sweetener, if using. Cover and simmer 15-20 minutes, until the rhubarb is mushy. Pour through a fine sieve using a wooden spoon to press additional juice from the pulp. You’ll have a dazzingly beautiful pink juice and an unappetizing mass of yellowish pulp. Compost the pulp (pretty much flavorless at this point, though you could mix it into chili or something for texture). For a clearer juice, let it settle for 15-20 minutes and then slowly pour it into another container, discarding the sediment that has settled to the bottom.

For instructions on canning your rhubarb juice, visit Bernardin or check out this factsheet. It’s incredibly easy.

Want to learn how to preserve seasonal produce?
We’re thinking of hosting small batch canning sessions to share our know-how with fellow gardeners, foodies and revolutionaries. For a small fee, we’d lead a basic canning lesson featuring in-season produce of the moment. Participation would be limited to 6-8 people so everyone can help with the processing and take home a filled jar. Interested? Let us know and we’ll send you details when we have our schedule together.