In August, John and I figured out where to plant next year’s poppy field, which will be on the west side of the Fennville Cemetery. He hooked our large tiller to a tractor and turned over the sod, exposing the crab grass roots to the sun. Along with other weeds, the grass and roots rotted, for a week or so. John tilled the soil again, preparing it for a cover crop.
Farmers have planted cover crops for decades as a way to choke out weeds and prepare a field for a crop of wheat, oats, or for a more permanent crop such as alfalfa for hay. When chemical herbicides arrived, many farmers abandoned the practice of cover crops which are also called “green manures”. Not only will the selected planting eliminate most weeds, but when disked into the soil, they help build humus, rather like spreading manure on land. Organic farmers still employ this method to eliminate weeds and to build their soil. Usually in the fall, John plants rye on land where he wants to grow oats the following year. Driving along our rural roads, we have spied fields with cover crops of tillage radishes and rye.
The leafy plant with white flowers is buckwheat, which serves both as a summer cover crop and to feed bees and other pollinators. If you walk by a stand of blooming buckwheat, you can hear the buzz of hundreds of bees and watch butterflies flit above the blossoms. When buckwheat is sowed in the spring, farmers raise it in order to harvest its seeds. After a frost has killed the plants, they combine the field for the small, brown pyramid-shaped groats. Because we do not want to harvest groats, but are using the plants as a cover crop, we planted the field in late summer.
Come October, John will disk in the buckwheat and allow it to rot. With an implement called a “drag,” he will rake the field, pulling apart any remaining roots and creating a smooth seed bed. The seeds for poppies, bachelor buttons, daisies, and Black-Eyed Susans are tiny and require fine soil, just like in a garden. At last, he attaches a seed drill to a tractor, the same tool he uses to plant rye or oats that we harvest for our animals and for fall cover crops.
Opening the small white muslin bags, he mixes the seed in the box of the seed drill and heads to the prepared field. Rumbling back and forth, the seeds tumble down numerous tubes and plop into the shallow depression created by a small metal disk. From years of experience, John knows just how deep to plant the seeds. If the trough is too deep, they will not germinate well or maybe not at all, or if the seeds land top of the ground, mice and birds will consume them. After he plants them, he hooks a heavy iron roller to the tractor and pulls it over the soil to pack down the seeds, just as a gardener might pat a spot to insure the dirt covers lettuce seeds.
Then we wait for snow and time to work their magic.