In most parts of the country cover cropping is something farmers do in the fall to prepare for winter. In South Florida we do the opposite, like everything else. The weather down here supports plant growth year round so many people assume we can grow veggies year round, but that isn't necessarily the case for a few reasons. Beginning in May the humidity and heat go up a notch making an average day very inhospitable for almost all annual vegetables, especially brassicas which is the family of plants we like to eat most (arugula, broccoli, kale, etc). There are some annuals we can grow during the summer months, primarily things in the night shade family such as peppers and eggplants (but not tomatoes because they are very sensitive to humidity) as well as things in the hibiscus family like okra, roselle and cranberry hibiscus. That said, just because they can grow doesn't mean it's easy to do it on a farm scale. Bugs of all shapes and sizes come out in full force during this time of year and protecting crops can be extremely challenging, expensive and time consuming. The cost of good quality pesticides (we only use certified organic products) is crazy high and then there's the price of all of the equipment necessary to apply the product (sprayers, protective gear, etc). One of the hardest parts for me is the amount of time it takes to thoroughly spray every leaf of every plant... Which brings me to yet another reason why forcing a year round growing season is not all it's cracked up to be. Working in this heat is hard for us. Harder than normal farming, which is strenuous to begin with.
At the heart of why we take a break is the fact that we need to revive our soils so that during the optimal growing season we have better, not worse, soil conditions. These few summer months are incredibly valuable for building soil; for putting back organic matter and nutrients that we took out during the fall and winter harvest season. We build soil two ways. Cover cropping is one and composting manure is the other. Cover crops are essentially a crop that you grow throughout an entire field, planted thickly so that it grows like a green carpet, literally "covering" the soil hence protecting it from compaction and erosion. They grow quickly and are usually large and fibrous so that when we cut them down and incorporate them into the soil they break down and add organic matter to our fields. Cover crops also smoother weeds and repel insects, reducing their populations and sort of "cleaning out" the farm for the following season. As a bonus some cover crops also feed bees, like buckwheat, pictured above. Buckwheat is usually used in combination with other cover crops like sunn hemp and sudan grass, both of which grow very tall and take about 60 days to mature. Buckwheat is sown with those to provide a thicker carpet during germination and for the first month while the other crops are getting established. After about 30 days buckwheat produces flowers, then seeds and shortly thereafter dries up and dies, leaving a fine layer of hay on the surface of the soil in between other crops.
Adding composted manure to the fields is another very effective way of improving our soils. We get large piles of fresh horse manure delivered at the beginning of summer and we spread it over our fields, sometimes in combination with cover crops, other times on it's own. Over the next 5 months is breaks down and becomes food for our fall crops. Composted manure is rich in nitrogen and micro nutrients, but it also creates an environment rich with mycelium (mushroom roots that break down woody material into food for plants and living soil organisms), soil organisms and organic matter, all of which help to feed and hydrate our fall crops.
Cover cropping and composting manure is hard work and can sometimes feel unrewarding because there is nothing to harvest and sell or eat, but sometimes, like when the buckwheat is in full bloom and buzzing with bees you feel proud to have created such a beautiful situation. In the fall when we till in heaps of organic matter and we can see the improvement in our soil, it becomes clear that all that hard work was not for nothing, but rather for everything.