Who Knew? Cover Crop Cocktails are Commune Hippies

I came across this cover crop article the other day that featured quotes from Dr. Jill Clapperton. Dr. Clapperton was very influential to me – I heard her speak once in fall 2011, and I really clued into everything she said about diverse mixes of plants collaborating with soil life to rejuvenate soil. Everything clicked. I came home and decided to limit tillage and started planning my first big cover crop cocktail for planting in spring 2012. And I went crazy with the first cocktail – 20 varieties of seed! And then, the dreadful drought hit and made summer 2012 unforgettable for most farmers in the eastern half of the U.S. Corn fields around our farm were “fired” (brown and crispy). But our cover crop cocktail stayed green. How was it doing that? I gleefully wondered.

hippiesJill Clapperton: “With a diverse cover crop all roots are crossing over below the soil surface touching each other and they are sharing things. If the crop combination is compatible they are sharing nutrients and water. That is probably why a mixed species stand survives and does so much better than a single species stand.”

Yuck. Plants are behaving like a bunch of commune hippies, sharing stuff and whatnot. Not competing and killing each other like they should – water and nutrients are scarce resources!

Dr. Clapperton says sharing happens in the roots. I think this is fascinating, and it opens up even more questions:

  • What makes a crop combination “compatible”?
  • Are the plants doing the sharing, or are soil microbes & bugs doing the work, acting as exchange agents between plant roots?
  • Why/how did plants become compatible instead of competitive, especially under stress?

I’m looking forward to learning way more about this. How ’bout you?

Healthy sorghum in cover crop cocktail.

Healthy sorghum in cover crop cocktail.  July 2012, 3 weeks of high temps and no rain.

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