Cover Crop: Planting Hope in the Tough Times

It’s winter in wine country, but the landscape is not drab or covered with snow.  Unexpectedly, the ground is carpeted with tiny yellow mustard flowers waving gently on top of tender green stems.  The dark, gnarly stumps of the pruned vines stand in silent, geometric rows as witnesses to both the loneliness and the beauty of the season.

Apparently, mustard is a fantastic winter cover crop for vineyards and other agricultural endeavors.  Those of us who are not farmers may not understand the benefits of a cover crop, so I did a little research.  Cover crops, also called “green manure,” are planted to benefit the soil.  They are not planted to produce any kind of harvest, rather their sole purpose is to enrich the soil which, in turn, sustains other crops.  Just to be clear, no one is making Dijon out of the plants that are growing in the vineyards right now! 

There are two main benefits to planting mustard as a cover crop. 

  1. It suppresses weeds, pathogens and pests. 
  2. It increases the health of the soil through adding organic matter and redistributing nitrogen in the soil. 

In short, a cover crop kills undesirable problems in and, simultaneously, boosts the health of the soil.  The soil, or terroir, is a foundational building block for wine, so you could say...

Cover crops contribute to great wine!

Here’s how it works.  Mustard is part of the brassica family (think: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) and, as such, is filled with glucosinolates.  These natural chemical agents are lethal to many soil borne pathogens and pests.  “The higher the levels of glucosinolates present, the higher the biofumigant effect.”  But the biofumigant effect only comes into play once the mustard is chopped down and water has come into contact with the cut plant releasing a natural gas called isothiocyanate (ITC).  Towards the end of winter, the vineyard manager will determine how tall to let the mustard grow (3 – 6 feet) and at what point to mow it down and till it into the soil.  Once it is cut and tilled into the soil, there must be water (ideally, rain) to activate the ITC which then kills pests in the soil that could harm the vines. 

Imagine mowing down a yard that has grown to a height of three feet.  There would be a lot of green cuttings, or biomass!  In the vineyards, this biomass is then tilled into the soil which, not only increases the bulk of the soil but, once the green has decomposed, feeds the soil with much-needed nitrogen.  The long tap roots that die below the surface also help to keep the soil aerated.  Double win.

Vintners who care about sustainability and good wine will rigorously engage yearly cover crop practices.  The same can be said about leaders who care about purpose, outcomes and finishing well.  When we find ourselves or our organization in a winter season of dormancy and isolation, with our good fruit gone and our limbs pruned back, we must plant a cover crop to prepare for the next season. 

It’s very poetic to say, “plant a cover crop”, but what does that mean?  In the end, it’s a uniquely individual thing, but here are a few questions to prompt further consideration.

  • What is foundational in your life or in your business?  What creates health?  Plant seeds (small new things) there, knowing that these seeds will not produce the outcome; they will die, but their very death will plow health into a system that creates the outcome. 
  • What “pests” need to be suppressed or killed?  Is it a character issue?  Is it something that is a holdover from a former season, burrowed in the ground?  Get help to find the right “organic” treatment so the soil of your life or business can be rid of things that will cause damage in the next season.
  • What hope do you need to plant?  Planting a cover crop is all about hope that more fruitfulness will happen.  Lean into hope!

Remember that while the mustard is growing, aerating the soil, then dying and feeding the soil, the vine continues to be in a dormant state.  It's resting; holding on to its reserves until the right moment in spring.  The real work of a leader during a winter season is to rest and recalibrate; hanging on to the reserves until just the right moment.  So, a word of caution about planting a cover crop is in order.  Leaders really like DOING stuff, so planting a cover crop in a season of dormancy can feel really great…like something is actually happening!  Things are growing.  Well, that is technically true, but don’t ignore the gift of rest and dormancy during a winter season. Without dormancy, there is no future crop.