Garden Guide: These plants repel weeds and are a natural fertilizer!

Ever wonder how sustainable farms grow beautiful produce without harmful chemicals and fertilizer? Alex speaks with a farmer for some tips you can use for your garden at home.

Alex Calamia

May 8, 2024, 9:53 AM

Updated 16 days ago

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It may not be pretty, but soil is literally the foundation to a successful garden. Just like your plants, the soil is alive too! It's filled with microorganisms that make nutrients accessible for your plants. Healthy soil should support beautiful plants without fertilizer and some harsh fertilizers can harm the health of your soil in the long term. That's why sustainable farms use fertilizers made with ingredients from nature and select plants that help support the produce they want to grow.

What is a cover crop?

Cover crops are plants grown specifically to condition the soil for a productive summer season. Cover crops have been used since the beginning of human agriculture history, but it became less common in the 1950s when farms started growing one type of crop and herbicides and synthetic fertilizers appeared to make their business more profitable. Now cover crops are making a huge comeback according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Farmers today recognize that cover crops can reduce weeds, soil erosion, and nutrient deficiencies. It's especially helpful on small scale farms that have a diverse variety of crops growing through the season.
At ELIJA Farms in Dix Hills, New York, the fields are filled with rye and legumes early in the season. The rye keeps the soil from eroding and suppresses weeds because it grows all winter long. Now that the weather is warming up, the rye will be cut back and serve as a mulch for the plants embedded within it. Unlike rye grass lawns, annual rye won't return unless it's replanted or left to set seed.

Plant peas to make your other plants grow faster!

While many plants take nutrients from the soil to grow, some like legumes add nutrients back into the soil as they grow! The process is called biological nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients to stimulate plant growth and is the first number you see on store bought fertilizers.
Peas, beans, and chickpeas are just a few of the more than 16,000 species in the bean family. As diverse as they are, they all take nitrogen from the air (our atmosphere is 80% nitrogen gas!) and bring it back into the soil thanks to a partnership with soil bacteria called rhizobia. Gardeners can use cool-weather plants like snap peas as a cover crop in early spring to add nitrogen to the soil before planting summer produce or select warm weather loving legumes like bush beans to continually add nitrogen to the soil throughout the growing season.

Tips for home gardeners

Companion planting is a method of gardening where plants are selected to complement each other either because they have similar growth requirements, or because they help support each other. Summer pests usually target a single species of plant at a time which is why this method can help reduce pressure from pests. Some gardeners actually grow plants called trap crops deliberately to keep pests too preoccupied to eat the produce they're trying to grow. Dill for example is a trap crop for Tomato hornworms, so planting dill with tomatoes will reduce the pressure from these pests on tomatoes.
Companion planting may not bring instant results, but this method of gardening improves soil health and will support crops for many years, unlike some fertilizers that bring quick results but can pollute the ground when used excessively.


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