Friday, April 29, 2011

The Garden is Cranking!

The field peas are going nuts! The garlic is building root mass! The lettuce is finally leafing out! A lot is happening all it once, and it's wonderful.  This picture shows that there's no question whether clover or field peas are the more effective cover crop at my garden.  That, my friends, is a fertilizer savings that will also allow me to not have to till the garden this year.  They are ready to be cut, and the beds prepared for summer crops.  The romaine lettuce (Winter Density) is finally putting on some bulk, and the Spinach (Space) and leaf lettuce (Salad Bowl) continue to do fantastic. 
Meanwhile, in the basement, the seedlings continue to do well.  It's amazing how much I've learned over the last several years about gardening.  There's so much that I do that's now totally routine and subconcious, and the results are awesome. 

Being a new(ish) Dad, learning how to be an effective manager at work, and continuing to keep a marriage working under stress and heavy work commitments doesn't leave a person often feeling like they are really doing a good job at anything.   I'm surprised and happy to say that at least for this week, I am proud of my gardening skill. 

Our growing season technically starts in two days.  It won't be but another 10 days before the garden is transforming into "summer crop" mode.  And I can finally turn off those creepy grow lights.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Date With Cope's Grey Tree Frog

Last week's visit to "Highway Ponds WMA" in southern Maryland revealed a creature I have heard for many years, but never seen in the wild - Cope's Grey Treefrog.  I saw these two characters hanging out on top of a mining gate (4" galvanized pipe) and when they saw me, they ducked into the pipe immediately, making photography nearly impossible.  Since Copes' only differ in their genetics and their call, I based my identification of them on the fact that Copes' calls were filling up the woods on that cloudy, humid April afternoon. Wanna hear (I can't take credit for the video or audio)?

As their name suggests, tree frogs generally live in trees, but not necessarily adjacent to open water, where you'd find very closely related frogs like the Chorus Frog, Spring Peeper, and Cricket Frog.  However, in April and May, the Copes' and other tree frogs migrate down the trees and down the slopes toward large wetlands to mate and lay eggs.  I suspect that in areas (such as Southern Maryland, in the shadow of Washington DC, Baltimore, and Annapolis), high quality forested wetlands are a bit difficult to come by, and staking out one's territory this time of year might be difficult.  I think the result is my photo - two Cope's Grey Tree Frogs hanging out in a steel pipe. Their destination - the wetland below - seems like an admirable one.

But, as some astute (or regular) readers may note, I previously published this exact picture as an example of excellent shaded fish habitat to target in the mid-summer months.  That presents a problem for the tree frogs and for anyone seeking to manage them.  A frequent conflict I've had with landowners trying to manage wetlands involves my effort to keep fish out of places like this.   Why? Fish (notably bluegills and bass) are voracious predators of not only frogs, but also of tadpoles.  Predators - primarily fish, raccoons, and birds - can eliminate up to 95% of viable tadpoles and salamander larvae from shallow ponds.

In a landscape like the Adirondacks, this may not be a biological or genetic problem for frogs, since the landscape is covered with high quality wetlands, ponds, lakes and streams.  The predators can't be everywhere, all the time. Fish certainly can't access every bog in the entire region.  However, in a compromised landscape made up of farms, suburbs, and mining operations, the genetic stock of amphibians depends heavily on a pretty small number of created, restored, and managed ponds and wetlands to remain a viable population.  Fish can have a devastating effect on their success from year to year.  Please consider that the next time you consider stocking a "frog pond" or wetland with fish.  If there aren't fish in the pond already, the best thing you can do is to leave it without fish. Maybe you'll get a chance to have a date with a Cope's!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Scouting for Fishing Spots...and....JACKPOT!

Running around from site to site for work, I had the opportunity to stop and check out a few potential fishing spots.  No time for a Light Tackle Lunch, but that was for the best.  I may as well skip the suspense - my third and final spot check was this spot to the left. It was amazing.  And public.  More on it in a minute.
My first spot check was a community pond near my office.  The community is interested in possibly converting the pond to a wetland at some point, which is right up my alley.  While the pond was private, the outfall into a local stream was public and possibly fishable - it turned out to be awful fish habitat.  Finished my work there and moved on to spot check #2.

Bass were literally jumping out of the water here! And it's public land! And no one fishes it!

Spot  #2 is a gigantic stormwater pond, about 25 acres in size and about 3 years old, between a river and a new monstrosity of a shopping center.  The pond is hidden by forest on 3 sides, and by a retaining wall on the fourth side.  The pond still looks very "new", with close-mowed vegetation around the edges and no structure in the pond yet.   It's also clear from seeing the site that fish will not be able to move upslope from the river to get into the pond.  I imagine someone will eventually stock it without the property owner's knowledge, and eventually the banks will become overgrown and turn into more suitable habitat for fish prey items like frogs and large insects.  This process will probably take 5-8 years, if not longer. Plus, technically speaking, this is "private property" and once the entire site has been developed there will probably be signs that read "no trespassing" that will be enforced by "County police."  Minor details, in the scheme of things.
Spot #3 was for real, though. I have known about it for years, and it's the kind of public land I've complained about for years - weird access hours, weird regulations, no kayaks allowed, six dozen locked gates, etc. Let's call it "Highway Ponds WMA."

"Highway Ponds" is composed of a series of ponds in the floodplain of the Patuxent River.  Last year, I called the agency in charge of the property and asked for the gate code.  The fourth time I called, someone answered, was very polite, and quickly surrendered the code.  Thank you!

I made it out to the site's most accessible (and smallest) three ponds last May, and found them nearly unfishable due to vegetation and algae.  Yet, there were plenty of fish. The habitat was in great shape - no question about that. 

This week, I trekked out to the property's most remote ponds and was pretty ecstatic about what I found.  One pond was gigantic with several islands and peninsulae, featuring several lengths of shoreline with little or no aquatic vegetation, and nice sandy/stony substrate - an amazing fishing opportunity! I saw a large number of fat old bass hanging around the shoreline, although it was clear that they saw me, too.

The furthermost pond from the road (pic above, right) is actually in the woods.  It's totally shaded, a bit shallow, and I'll be interested to see if the water stays cool enough to hold bass in the summer.  At least it won't be full of emergent vegetation!  I will try a little baitcaster fishing in here this summer - it's a tight spot!

One of the neatest things about "Highway Ponds WMA" is that it's specified for catch and release for all bass, but anglers are encouraged to keep any and all sunfish of any size - no creel limit.  I will definitely be hitting the property up - especially these two "rear ponds" -  in the next month to catch some panfish for the dinner table.  In the end, it was fortuitous that I did not have my fishing tackle with me, because there is no way I would have been able to go back to work after seeing all those fish.  I'll get 'em next time! 

But make no mistake - the clock is ticking - here comes the algae!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Slow Fishing in Southern Maryland

I had a chance to get out to some abandoned gravel pits on the Little Patuxent River in southern Maryland - the same spot I fished about two weeks ago, before our series of torrential downpours/tornados swept through.  It's been a rough patch, for sure.  Everyone that I know is ready to get outside in one way or another, and well, tornados tend to put a damper on that sort of thing.

There's about a 50% chance that this is the last time for several months that I'll be able to fish this series of ponds.  Even though the rain continues to chill the water (more on that in a moment), the aquatic vegetation is quickly reaching toward the surface.  Only 12-18" vertical left to go before the place is effectively unfishable, except with worm and bobber (and that's pushing it).

I threw a slightly different variety of lures around than my last trip here, and I tried to go into deep water with a few small spoons and crappie jigs, only to come up with pounds of vegetation.  I ended up focusing on white/black/red topwater lures because they were drawing strikes....but no hits.

After about an hour, I finally caught my first fish, and then quickly caught several more, ending with about 6 very hefty bluegill and 4 small black crappie (I caught neither species during my last trip here!). Had I started catching either a little earlier in my lunchbreak, I would have returned to the truck for a stringer.  Oh well.

Conditions were tough again - just 48 hours after a huge storm, and 24 hours before the storm that just annihilated the Southeastern and Mid-atlantic states.  Wind was all over the place, from N to NE to SE and back to N, making topwater fishing a dicey prospect.  On top of that, the water was possibly even cooler than it was a few weeks ago, and the few big bass I did see (and oh boy, I did see a few!) were totally unmotivated and uninterested in any lure I had with me.  It was not for lack of effort.  I did see a 17-18" largemouth make a half-hearted gulp at a lone minnow near the shoreline.  That was it.

It was a frustrating few hours of fishing but ultimately successful, depending on your definition of success.  I will probably return once more in the next few weeks to see if it's fishable.  If not, there are two more abandoned pits within hiking distance that are promising.  One is shaded from the west and south, the other is shaded from the east, south, and west.  My theory is that the aquatic vegetation will take a little longer to totally take over the ponds.  Guess we'll find out.

It's shaping up to be a weird spring overall.  The weather, and thus the fishing, have been very erratic.  Anadromous fish like herring, perch, and shad have not been predictable in their movements upstream.  I've been happy to get back outdoors and give it a shot, but I have to admit, I'm curious to see if our air temperatures suddenly bound into the mid-90s in 3 weeks, as they did last May.  Almost every minute of fishing between June 1 and September 1 was an exercise in hot watered, lazy fished frustration.  Well, except for this particular minute.   I'm hoping for a few more like that this late spring and summer.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pond to Bog Conversion, Phase II

See Part I here, where I take our small backyard pond and begin the conversion to a more sustainable rainwater-fed bog.

After dutifully filling our pond with sand and peat moss up to the elevation of the pond's two "outfalls," I sat and waited this winter, rather than hastily planting our new bog last fall.

It was a good thing that I did, because that 3 vertical feet of material compacted under its own weight, resulting in a shallow pond from January onward.   Any time someone is trying to manage water on a site (either to accelerate or decelerate drainage), it's critical to understand the relative elevations that are causing water to move/not move off of the site.  In our case, I decided to change the spot's hydrology from a fish and frog pond to a native bog, and the project actually had discrete goals (as any garden, landscape or habitat project should).  Our primary goals were "remove toddler drowning hazard from yard," and "establish backyard wetland that does not hold mosquito larvae, and is lower maintenace than the old pond." 

Hydrologically it means keeping the new soil moist but not underwater, for reasons including mosquitos.  So I wrangled up some more sand and peat moss (the soil foundation of a bog) and laid it down. 

I eagerly awaited the next spring rainstorm, which eventually came, and it looks like we are finally ready to plant.  The final elevations, relative to the pond's primary outfall, range from -0.5" to +2".  Even with settling, that should work.

I came up with a planting plan that ended up being a little overwhelming due to all of our constraints.  Those constraints included:
*plants must be shade tolerant
*plants must be tolerant of constantly saturated soil
*plants must be tolerant of low pH (bog) soil
*plants must not be poisonous
*plants must be able to withstand occasional trampling by cats, raccoons, opossums, birds, and toddlers.

The choices are pretty limited, but I came up with three species that should work:

Ostrich Fern, one of my favorite forest/wetland plants, which has a beautiful growing habit and can be a huge plant.  The spot is truly shady and I'm curious how big it will get.  The plant is variously endangered/at risk/threatened throughout the Northeast, which is basically a function of the widespread destruction of its habitat - forested wetlands.

Catesby's Trillium, a woodland flower native to the southern Appalachians (not where I live), with a nice pink flower.  We'll see if it can survive the summer!  I currently grow red trilliums and two species of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, a similar plant, so there is hope.

Bloodroot, a native woodland flower that blooms (white) in early spring.  Bloodroot was used by the Algonquins to induce vomiting.  Wikipedia says that if applied to the skin as a salve, it "causes disfigurement." If Hank takes an interest in the plant, I'll have to compost them all.  Enough said!

Here's what I think it will look like (orientation is opposite of the photos):

Phase III - Planting the Bog - when we reach growing season in a few weeks!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Longwood Gardens and du Pont Country, PA

Thanks to our new friend Groupon, we had discount tickets to go up and see Longwood Gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  Of course, the discount expires before the spring flowers come out.    To say the place has history is an understatement.  To see my wife's write-up of the trip, clicky here.

The property was part of William Penn's original land grant from James, Duke of York (later, King James II) in 1682.  In 1906, Pierre du Pont bought the 1,100 acre property and spent decades and millions of dollars converting it to an arboretum of specimens.   Pierre was extremely proud of the property, and opened it to the public - at first, just occasionally, then a few days a week, and then every day of the week.  His will created a Foundation and an endowment to maintain the property and keep it open to the public. The property includes a breathtaking five acre conservatory, built at du Pont's own expense: 

An orchid show was going on, and it featured some amazing specimens.  Most surprising were the slightly less dazzling plants, as orchids go, that are apparently native to the Northeastern United States.  While their colors were paler and the plants smaller than their tropical cousins, it was pretty wild to imagine those plants on the forest floor of a local bog or hardwood forest.  Cool, indeed.

There is a children's garden in the Conservatory, where kids can run around like maniacs and touch rocks, plants, and water (in a very 1940s kind of way).  Hank seemed pretty thrilled by the experience (luckily his mama was smart enough to see the kids' garden on the internet, and brought a change of clothes for Hank).

We capped off the trip by stopping by Terrain, a high end garden design shop in Kennett Square, PA.  The displays were really amazing and attractive, but unfortunately I had a screaming 18 month old attached to my leg, so I didn't get to enjoy it too much.  A lot of their stock comes from gardening suppliers in Great Britain and France.  Very nice stuff!  Lettuce knives anyone?

Terrain - where ladies in riding boots go to buy their gardening supplies

And what would any trip to Northern DE/Southeastern PA be without a stop at Capriotti's?  We ordered two 12" Bobbies - the Bobby is a ridiculous sandwich made of pulled smoked turkey, delicious garlicky stuffing, and lumpy cranberry sauce.  I was proud that we did not eat them on the 90 minute drive home.  However, they did not make it through the evening.  It was a fun trip and yup, we are still holding our breath for spring to truly break!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dream Trip Photo Prompt - Espanol Edition

I've been more picky about responding to various writing prompts around the interwebs, but this was one was too easy.  I love to travel.  I'm only limited by time off and liquid capital in the pursuit of exotic places.  There are lots of places I'd like to go.  But only a few where I'd really be living the dream.  Those are:

1. Laguna Madre, Mexico
2. NW Costa Rica
3. Peru

Fly fishing the Laguna Madre.  Photo from

It's worth noting that I have been to one of those three places, am very close (another year or two) to traveling to another (if I don't balk, and travel back to the one I've already visited), and am nowhere near in good enough shape (physically, mentally, or financially) to visit and truly enjoy the third.

Ahhh, let's start in Costa Rica.  I've been. I loved it.  It was wonderful.  The fishing was pretty good.  The surfing was better.  The people were wonderful, as long as you attempted to speak to them in Spanish.  The women were beautiful. The beer was cheap, and the seafood was fresh, although the food was not as spicy as I might have preferred.  And according to the guys who had been visiting for decades "it's ruined."  Yeah right.  Try living in the Mid-Atlantic for a few years.  I am so glad I went.
                                                                    Me, at sunset, waiting for one last wave at Reef el Estero, NW CR

Next is Laguna Madre Sur, which is a very salty estuary that spans from South Padre Island far down into Mexico, finally emptying into the Gulf at Rio Soto la Marina.  The best way to describe this area's potential awesomeness as an outdoors dream trip is to mention that 50% of Texas' commercial fish come from this area, which, according to USGS, winters over 75% of the world's redhead ducks.  Inland, the largemouth fishing and quail hunting are absolutely legendary as well. 

Laguna Madre is recognized as an internationally significant wetland system and one of the most important bird habitats in the world.  Six years ago, the Mexican government protected the land (1.4 million acres of it) as a preserve. Yeah, I guess it's worth visiting.  My plans to visit there over the last few years have been chilled, to say the least, by the ongoing drug war in northern Mexico.  Hopefully they get that straightened out for their own sake.

Eventually I will make this trip.  I don't imagine it'll be vastly different from visiting Florida, the Carribean, or even coastal North Carolina,, other than the sheer remoteness.  And hopefully the excellent tequila.

Finally, my dream/nightmare trip.  The one that stands as an obstacle in so many ways right now.  It's so remote, and so far from home, that I refuse to go unless I'm sure I will enjoy it - for all that it is.  Peru.

Photo from Surf Peru

Peru is not messing around.  Peru is not laying around in an all-inclusive resort, waiting for your surfing/hunting/fishing guide to knock on your door when they have found conditions that will meet your exacting requirements. Peru, like Chile and Argentina, would love for you to come visit and find it yourself.
Peru's coldwater volcanic reefs make for some of the most consistent and reliable waves in the world,  But they are not warm, and the wind blows all the time.  Peru offers some of the world's most sacred places, like Machu Picchu, but it's either a 3 day hike or a day-long bus ride to get there. And a flatlander like me wouldn't have any trouble hiking to Cuzco, the Inca capitol, since it's merely 11,100 feet above sea level.  About 500 miles south of the Peru/Chile border lies Easter Island, a sub-destination of my dreams. 500 miles south but over 1000 miles offshore.  I probably don't have to mention that the cold waters of the Southeastern Pacific make for some insane fishing.

Yup. Peru would be the trip of a lifetime.  And in my current state, it might be the last trip of my lifetime, since I would probably not survive it, or at best, would end up like one of those Locked Up Abroad episodes when I run out of money halfway through my trip, and offer to mule 20lbs of gold, which of course turns into 90lbs of weaponized uranium, through security and customs at the airport.  Oh well!

Photo by Calderon de la Bruja

Sometimes, maybe it's good to think of dreams as being dreams.  What would really be so wrong with going back to Costa Rica (yes, that's me!)........

Or tackling some small waves in English-speaking Jamaica?
photo: John Pool 

Or perhaps fishing and surfing the also-quite-English Eleuthera, Bahamas?

The fact is this: any place can be your dream destination if it gets you those things that you've been longing for.  For me, it's warm air, "not freezing" water, and the opportunity to get out and pursue the outdoors in places where I am not limited by parking, work hours, beach tags, and 5am boat ramp backups.  Places where I can focus on being alive and noticing all the beautiful things around me.  What about you? Where's your dream destination?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fishing Loch Raven Reservoir the Right Way, Part I

Loch Raven Dam

One of my most-read posts of all time is a 3 year old clunker about a ho-hum day fishing at Loch Raven Reservoir, one of Baltimore City's water supply reservoirs (and recognized as one of the best largemouth lakes in the Mid-Atlantic states, alongside Round Valley Reservoir in NW New Jersey). I always feel apologetic when I check my web stats and see that people are visiting that post so frequently, looking for good information about fishing the lake, and what they find is, um, significantly less than that.  Well, I have come to deliver you that post. Finally. Well, part of it.  Finally. (5-25-11 - here's the second part - finally).
Loch Raven Reservoir is a drowned river valley impoundment of the Gunpowder River near Maryland's Fall Line - the boundary between coastal plain and piedmont.  It features an interesting variety of fish habitats, from shallow coves, to rocky cliffs, islands, and rock piles over and in deep water, to extensive grass beds, to deep water.  There are three ways to get to the fish, of which two (the first two) are reasonable for most anglers:

1.  Shoreline fishing
2.  Renting a jonboat, kayak, etc. at the Fishing Center
3.  BYO Boat

Shoreline fishing
Shoreline fishing is certainly the most popular way to access Loch Raven.  While a buffer of "public" lands with a solid trail system surrounds the reservoir, many spots are a 2+ mile hike away from legal parking spots.  Due to pressure and trash - especially from subsistence fishermen - any shoreline spot within a quarter mile of legal parking will usually be burned out (no fish) and basically a mess of worm buckets and old fishing line tangles.  It's a shame.  Common access areas orbit around the major roads that cross the Reservoir (just pull up a digital map and see for yourself).  Obviously, the closer to the road you are, the more pressured the fish will be.  Legal point to remember - no fishing or boating between the dam and Loch Raven Drive.  There's a serious network of trails as well as fire roads throughout the City watershed property, and these are absolutely key to getting to the fish on foot.  Give yourself extra time to walk in and walk out!
Most of the reservoir's shoreline has overhanging limbs, and a fair amount of dead trees in the water.  It's easy to think that these are good fishing spots, but many of the trees fall into large, open coves with less than 12" of water, due to extensive runoff from the deer-damaged forest.  In the spring and late fall, fishing the dropoffs on both the gradual slopes and the rock cliffs can offer some exciting fishing for large bluegills and 1-3lb largemouth bass.  Even in those seasons, this may require you to use a rod/reel combo that will help you reach out great distances.  Please do not bring a surf rod.  Or six surf rods. 
During the summer, excellent casting is even more important, as the reservoir's grass beds get thicker and thicker by the week.  The beds are mostly floating, and seem to ring the reservoir from the shoreline to about 30 feet out.   Some beds seem totally unattached, and float to the windward shoreline on any given day. Fishing in these conditions would be epic if you didn't snag  your lure in the grass during every retrieve.  My experience has also been that it's extremely hard to catch big fish from shore in Loch Raven in the summer heat - we normally pack it in by 10am.  I think there are three reasons for this - 1) the grass beds I mentioned above, 2) lack of access to large areas of deep water with structure, and 3) inability to cover large areas of woody, cliff-y shoreline on foot before the sun gets up over the trees.

There are numerous rocky points to fish throughout the reservoir, but the fish are very spooky in these areas.  If your big shadow falls over the water, you're probably done. If you are skilled at "ambush fishing" - I am not - you can land some monster fish on these dropoffs.  Depends on how far you want to belly crawl across a cliff.

Renting a Boat
Loch Raven has a City/County-run fishing center where you can rent one of several types of boats.  In all cases, the gear you rent will help you putt along the reservoir (no outboards allowed, period), but don't count on covering long distances because you can't rent a boat before 6am (so 630am before you're actually on the water) and you have to be back at sunset or earlier (whenever the fishing center closes).  Plus, the fishing center is in a part of the reservoir that (I've found) is just not super productive for fishing.  So you need another 10 minutes to get outta there via trolling motor (or 30 minutes via paddle).   Get out to the channel (location of the old river bed) and then choose a tributary/cove to putter into.  If you rent a trolling motor, rent an extra battery.  A solid $5 investment.
Boat fishing is a great way to adapt to changing conditions in the reservoir (ie summer breezes).  You can fish the outside of the grass beds (epic), deep structure in the lake, or any of the islands in the lake.  You just have to get there, which takes some time.  If you are planning to fish Loch Raven in hot weather, plan on doing it by boat, and planning on using deeeeeeeeeeep running lures, because you probably won't get to a good shoreline spot before the bass move out of the shallows in the early morning.  Even though the Fishing Center (seasonally) opens at 6am, it's really a challenge to be out on a more productive part of the water before the fish go deep.

BYO Boat
Note: 2011 launch permits went on sale and sold out on April 1.  No more for 2011. This part is frustrating.  If you want, you can register your boat, canoe, or kayak for the City reservoirs (there are three, total).  There are a slew of rules, you have to pay for the permit (I believe $100), they usually run out of annual launch permits around April 1st - which is the day they go on sale (!!!), and you have to sign an affidavit that due to the threat of zebra mussels, your boat will not be used - all year - anywhere other than the Baltimore City reservoirs.  The "King Pro Staff" of Loch Raven has two giant trolling motors rigged up to his boat.  It is tore up, but hey, the guy can cover some water!
Another bummer is that you can only (boat) access the reservoir from the Fishing Center.  No putting in your canoe or cartop boat anywhere else - and it's a big reservoir.  And of course, let's not forget that you are not allowed to ground or anchor your boat for the purpose of walking ashore and fishing.  No sir.

I personally can't see a situation that would include this making sense for me.  But to each, his own. 
So there you have it.  How to access Loch Raven Reservoir for fishing (you can drive around it on your own and find out exactly where the parking is).  Hopefully this gives you a more solid idea of whether you should walk the shoreline, rent a boat, or register your own boat depending on your time constraints, need for speed, and what time of year it is.  Part II focuses on fishing the different habitats at Loch Raven - be sure to check it out here.  Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Garden Cover Crop Field Trial - Results

As I posted a few times last year, topsoil is a scarce commodity at the City Farm.  Partly because it's on a slight hill, but mostly because few or no gardeners undertake any soil conservation practices.  I guess with a 10' x 30' plot, it's easy enough to neglect. 
I also knew that I worked really hard to establish good soil in my first season there (2010), and there's no way I'm giving it away to the creek (where it ends up).  So I tried two fall-sown cover crops - Austrian Field Peas and Mammoth Red Clover - and planted each one two different ways.  All plantings got a shot of Royal Peat legume innoculant (to start the nitrogen fixing bacteria on their way).

Trial 1: Austrian Field Peas: planted and innoculated in rows

Trial 2: Austrian Field Peas: broadcast w/innoculum, worked into upper topsoil

Trial 3: Mammoth Red Clover: planted & innoculated in deep topsoil

Trial 4: Mammoth Red Clover: broadcast over compacted soil, gently worked into upper topsoil.

Trial 5: Soil opened for seeding by weeds

When the snow melted in late February, it was pretty clear that the Field Peas won the day. A month later, at 8" tall, it was even more clear.  The clover is still struggling to beat 1", and (I'd propose) has done little to nothing to protect the soil from raindrop impact or runoff over the winter.  Which, after all, was the goal of this field trial.  I was pretty surprised that the clover even grew on the compacted soil, but it eventually took.  It's interesting to compare all of these to the unplanted bed, which grew almost no weeds over the winter, but lost a fair amount of soil by flooding out under the raised bed. 
Another key component of this cover crop experiment, since I selected two types of legumes, was to increase organic matter and fixed nitrogen in the soil.   While I'll leave grams and calories to the real scientists out there, it's clear that the field peas accumulated root mass and nitrogen nodules over the winter (all of which will be turned under), while the clover did significantly less work below ground.
The third and least important component of this cover crop experiment was to determine which plant would provide more compost or "green manure" when cut or tilled under this spring.  It's not super important to me because I will probably compost it all at home with the rest of our leaves, table scraps, etc.  Nonetheless, the results are pretty obvious.

Between the two planting methods for field peas I didn't see a huge difference.  For comparison:
Planted in rows

Broadcast and worked into topsoil

It's rare that I experiment with anything in the outdoors and get obvious results (other than obviously bad ones).  I guess this is the exception and I'll be ordering twice as many Austrian field peas this summer! 

If you are new to this whole concept and would like to learn more, take a look at this NRCS-funded guide to cover crops.  Or this Purdue University guide to selecting a cover crop.  Oregon State University wrote this up for you about Austrian Field Peas.  And Penn State U. would like you to read their notes on Red Clover.  Most cover crop seed is available seasonally at your local farm supply store by the pound (or 50lb bag), and small amounts (even less than a pound!) are often available at high end garden centers, especially from August to October.

Remember that your soil is a resource and that soil conservation is a wise (and in my opinion, patriotic) thing to pursue.  Your soil doesn't belong downstream.  Why would you give away your land?  The fish don't want it, and God knows, taxpayers don't want to pay to dig it back up out of the river. So plant some cover.

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...