Last week I cut the cereal rye growing in the beds that will hold my Bloody Butcher corn. The rye was shedding pollen. At that point it most likely won’t grow back if cut. Cut it earlier and it will, cut it later and it will already be on its way to seed. Cereal rye seeds look somewhat like wheat, not to be confused with ryegrass that looks like grass seed. This rye was planted last fall. Its growth crowded out the weeds and soaked up any goodness in the soil, holding it to give back to the next crop. If I didn’t cut it now to lay down as mulch, I would leave it grow out to seed in June. My harvest then would be straw as carbon for the compost pile and seed to plant or eat.
Managing cover crops this way is a sustainable no-till method. I lay down that rye by cutting it with a Japanese grass sickle, sometimes known as a kama. I leave the rye lie in the bed for two weeks to settle, then transplant into it. The rye biomass becomes the mulch for the corn, tomatoes, or whatever crop has been transplanted into it. The rye cover will gradually decompose and feed back the the next crop. In the case of the corn, two weeks after the corn goes in, I interplant sweet potatoes. The sweet potato vines spread out all over the area and provide a living mulch that covers the soil after the surface rye decomposes.
Years ago I bought the grass sickle I use from Hida Tools. It is their model with a 6″ blade. I added the hole in the handle and the cord to hang it up with. A less expensive model is available from Way Cool Tools here in Virginia. Obviously there are some differences, but if you are on a tight budget, the less expensive one can get you started. My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows me in action cutting wheat and rye with it. On a larger scale you could use a scythe.
Cereal rye puts down a tremendous amount of roots that compost in place once the rye is cut, adding organic matter to the soil. Timing is of upmost importance. You want to take advantage of the natural progression of the plant. Once it starts thinking of going to seed, root growth stops and the energy goes to seed production, which is why you want to wait until pollen shed to cut it. After the pollen comes the seed. Unless you are growing that crop to harvest the grain, you want to cut it before viable seed is formed, or you will be replanting it right there if you leave it lie as mulch. Of course, sometimes you will want to grow it out to seed and harvest the grain and straw. More about that in a later post.
By not tilling the soil, you are preserving the organic matter. The roots of your cover crops do the tilling for you, going down deep to open up the soil, allowing air and water to penetrate. Once you have a good rotation in place with cover crops you will notice your soil getting better and better. However, it is important to have a dense cover or the weeds will creep in. Late planting, poor quality seed, inexperience, and of course, the weather are some reasons that could lead to a sparce cover. Once you understand how it all works, you will most likely be more successful. If you do have weeds, pull the rye mulch back and do a little cultivating. The tighter your rotation plan, the less chance for weeds to take hold. As soon as one crop is harvested, the next one goes in.
You will want to use a strong trowel or a soil knife to transplant with. If the roots are still too tough to transplant into two weeks after cutting the rye, you may want to wait another few days or a week and try again. If the rye is actively growing back, it was cut too soon and you will have to do a little more work to cultivate. Make a note to cut later next year. This method works great with tomatoes, cucumbers, and squashes, to name a few crops, however planting this way means you are putting them in maybe as late as a month after your last expected frost. If you are really in a hurry to plant earlier, you would want to use a different preceeding cover crop. Legumes such as hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas can be taken down earlier. Actually, there is a little of the legumes in my rye crops. The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd edition is an excellent resource to help you decide which cover crop would suit your needs. It is available through sare.org. My video Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan cover crops into your rotation. Cover crops used to be something you only considered planting if you had a tiller to manage them. Managing them with hand tools in your garden is possible. The learning is in the doing.