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Archive for the ‘winter rye’ Category

garden-august-2008-combined-blogCover crops can be an elusive subject for someone who hasn’t grown them before. When folks usually think of having a vegetable garden, they often consider only the vegetable plants. However, those plants need to be fed and if they are grown in the same space year after year with nothing added for nutrition, the productivity of your garden and the health of your soil will decline.

Bringing inputs from somewhere else to feed your garden brings up the sustainability concern of the depletion of the resources at somewhere else. If your compost depends on the manure and bedding from your neighbor’s horse, then you have to consider where the feed and bedding materials for that horse came from and how the earth is compensated for that. If amendments were brought in to fertilize the grain/straw/hay used by the horse, it broadens, even further, the footprint that is required to feed your garden, and ultimately you. It is good to have your soil tested and add minerals and anything else that may be necessary, using organic amendments. You will also need to add organic matter. Continuous additions of organic matter are needed for all gardens, especially if you have sandy soil or clay soil. Organic matter serves as a slow-release fertilizer that helps build soil structure and is home to microbes, keeping your soil alive. To build organic matter in your soil, think cover crops.

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Cover crops in late winter.

You could address your organic matter needs by bringing in mulch in the form of leaves or straw or buying compost, but then you would have to contend with the ever-widening footprint of your garden. Besides that, there is the possibility of Killer Compost, which I wrote about here. Even if you were okay with that, you have to acquire those things, then haul them around. However, you can grow all your mulch and compost materials right in your garden! When you do that you have the added benefit of the organic matter and soil life that results from the roots of those crops. It is hard to explain just how much those roots that are left in the soil add to your garden. You may have to see it and touch it to believe it, but it is amazing! Picture the crop above ground; then picture that much biomass as roots that are added to your organic matter reservoir. A wonderful bonus is that you don’t have to haul it there.

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Crimson clover at full flower.

You don’t need a tiller to manage cover crops. In fact, to get the most benefit from these crops, using a tiller would be a disadvantage. I propose to let the cover crops grow to maturity, or almost to maturity (flowering stage) and cut them with a sickle. You can let them lie where they are as mulch for the next crop or use the biomass as material for your compost pile. It is possible to plan enough cover/compost crops to make all the compost you need. More on that here. To manage these crops without a tiller you need to plan carefully. It is not quite so important with the legumes, such as peas, beans, and clovers. They can easily be pulled out or cut with a sickle and put in your compost pile. Unless you need the area sooner, wait until the plants are in full flower before you cut them.

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Rye shedding pollen.

The grain crops, such as rye and wheat, are different. Their root systems are so extensive that, if you cut the plants at full flower (you wll see they are shedding pollen), the plants won’t regrow, but you will still have a lot of roots to deal with. Wait two weeks for the roots to begin to decompose before you transplant into that bed. If you want to plant seeds after a cover crop, rather than transplants, use a legume as the preceding cover crop or wait until the grain crop has fully matured to cut it. At that point you will have seeds and straw. The plants will have completed their life cycle and the roots are ready to expire into the soil. Without removing the stubble, you can use a hoe to make furrows and plant seeds.

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Rye cut in early May. Rest of the rye and wheat will grow out for seed to be harvested in June.

Cereal rye, also known as winter rye, gives me more biomass than wheat. I like to use it before crops, such as corn, tomatoes, and squash that I want to mulch. I’ll cut it and let it lie right there in the bed. This mulch will eventually break down, feeding the soil, but by then I will have a crop that is spreading over it to cover the soil. Sweet potatoes do this nicely beneath my corn. Legumes have less carbon, causing them to decompose much faster than straw from the grain. You could cut it and let it lie as a mulch, but you better have a plan to add more mulch  soon, or you will be left with bare soil and Mother Nature will plant her weeds there.

compost-piles-april-2014-blog

Compost on the right is ready to use. Pile on the left will be ready to spread by fall.

I plan for at least 60% of my garden for the year to be in cover/compost crops so that I have enough biomass for the compost that I need. It is not all rye and clover. Some of the compost material is corn stalks, which provide much needed carbon in my compost pile. I designate a bed for my compost piles for the year, rotating it to the next bed in October. The goodness that has leached out of the compost all year is taken up by the cover crop, usually rye, which is planted in the former compost bed. The rye soaks up the goodness left by the compost and gives it back to the corn crop the next year when I cut the rye at pollen shed and leave it in place as mulch for the corn. Rye cut at flowering (pollen shed) in early May stays in place as mulch. Rye cut when the seeds are mature in mid-June goes to the compost pile as straw. The seeds are saved for eating or planting in the fall.

The bulk of your cover crops will be planted in the fall, but I am writing this now so you put them in the plan you are making for this year’s garden. Make a garden map and fill in each bed with everything that will grow there for the entire year—all 12 months. Add appropriate cover crops that will be out in time for the next desired crops to go in.

So much to tell and so little space……. You will find more information throughout my blog and in my DVDs and my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Once you have some experience with cover crops, you will realize that it is the easy way to go.
homeplace earth

 

 

 

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Winter Food Crop Rotation-- croppedIn January 2013 I wrote about what I do to have winter carrots. I begin in the fall of the previous year and plant rye in rows in my future carrot bed. The rye crop is allowed to mature all the way to seed, which around here in zone 7 is mid-June. When it is cut, the harvest is seed and straw. I lightly hoe between the rows of stubble and plant carrots. I keep this bed well watered to get the carrots off to a good start and replant if there are spots lacking good germination. Once everything is growing well the only attention is to weed periodically. The stubble decomposes, gently feeding back the soil for the carrots.

With this post I thought I would show the carrots in a three bed rotation plan that provides greens and carrots for my household through the fall and winter months, while feeding back the soil with cover crops. If you have trouble reading the text on the garden map, click on it and it will open up in a new window, as will all my photos. I grow all of my compost and mulch materials in order to avoid bringing damaging materials into my garden. In the photo you can see the skeleton of this plan. The carrots and kale and collards take up 43% of the space for the year in the total of the three beds. There are 12 bed crop months in each bed for a total of 36 bed crop months. The carrots and greens use 15.5 bed crop months, or 43%. When I plan cover crops I like to have 60% of the bed crop months in the garden in soil building crops. That would mean that the rest of the space in the three beds would need to be devoted to cover crops, plus I need to have some extra in the rest of the garden to make up for the shortage here. The winter rye that is already part of the rotation is a cover crop.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

The map you see is for the calendar year, showing the crops that are already in each bed at the beginning of the year. The green areas in the plan show when each bed is available for crops beyond the carrots and greens winter food plan. There is a lot of flexibility here. First I will give suggestions for filling those areas with cover crops. Bed 1 is already filled all twelve months, so look at Bed 2. You will harvest carrots from the fall until you have pulled them all or the weather warms in March and they start sending up a seed stalk. If you still have some then, pull them and store them in plastic bags in the fridge and you can have carrots for weeks in your kitchen. If you want to save seed, leave some of the carrots in the garden to go to seed. That might take until July so you may want to have those on one side of the bed, leaving the rest of the bed for something else. Only save from one variety to avoid crossing. My plan shows the carrots are there until March 1. That could vary and they could be there until they show signs of bolting. For a soil building crop you could plant fava beans or field peas. Favas and field pea plants can be harvested as green biomass for the compost pile when they reach full flower. In my area the blooms of fava beans tend to fall off when the weather gets hot, making it hard to save seed anyway. If you take them while blooming, you could follow with another legume, such as cowpeas or soybeans for biomass. Buckwheat can be planted anytime in there to keep the bed planted and to attract beneficial insects. The goal is to have the bed free by the middle of August for the kale and collard transplants that will overwinter. It helps to put a low tunnel on this bed then. It provides a frame for shade cloth at transplanting that is replaced by a plastic cover when the weather warrants. This low tunnel can be moved from one bed to the other to follow the brassicas crop.

Greens and roots for winter food.

Greens and roots for winter food.

In Bed 3 you can see that it begins the calendar year with kale and collards already there, left from last year’s planting. That group of crops (carrots early and kale/collards late) were planted in Bed 3 the previous year as you can see by the rotation arrows, leaving the kale/collards there to overwinter. If the harvest is for greens only, the bed will be ready for the next crop in mid-March. If you intend to save seeds from either kale or collards, those plants will be in the bed until June. Favas or field peas are an option for this bed, but so is spring wheat. That could be followed by cowpeas (or another legume), then buckwheat before it is time to plant the winter rye. In my area rye can go in anytime in October. Plant the rye in rows as to make the carrot planting easier. You can see by the rotation arrows that the crops in Bed 1 will rotate to Bed 3 in the next year and conveniently, the rye will be there, right on schedule.

If you have plenty of compost materials from the other beds in your garden you might prefer to plant crops for eating in those green spaces on the map. In that case, salad crops such as sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and bunching onions could be planted after the carrots or kale and collards. Those crops could be followed by snap beans. Bed 2 needs to be open by mid-August, but you have into the fall in Bed 3 leaving the possibility of planting sweet potatoes in late May/early June after the salad crops. Winter squash is a possibility in Bed 3 and you can use the rye straw harvested from Bed 1 as mulch. Potatoes followed by snap beans could happen in either bed.

Of course, the timing of these crops depends on your location. If you enjoy going to the farmers market for fresh vegetables or belong to a summer CSA, but also like to garden, you may want to consider this winter food plan. It might do well for those of you who like to travel in the summer, as long as you are around for the key planting times. You will find other garden maps and plans in my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Once you learn how to plan for the whole year, the possibilities are endless.

I will be talking about all of this on Saturday, January 31, 2015 in the presentation that Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and I are giving at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in Richmond, VA. Come and see us!Homeplace Earth

 

 

 

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Cornstalks and Machete

Use a machete to cut corn stalks into manageable lengths for the compost pile.

As you harvest the last of your summer crops, realize that the steps you take now are the beginning of next year’s garden. You could just leave everything as it is, looking not so good through the winter. Mother Nature likes to keep things green, so will provide her own seeds to fill in the space if you don’t. That’s where the unwanted weeds come from. The spent plants from your summer crops are actually valuable compost material at the ready. Harvest them for your compost pile as you clean up your garden. Next year this time the compost you make now will be available to spread as fertilizer for your garden. If you have grown corn and sunflowers, those stalks are wonderful sources of carbon for your compost. Some folks till all their spent plants, including cornstalks, into the soil. However, since I advocate managing your garden with hand tools, I chop the stalks down and cut them into manageable lengths with a machete, as shown in the photo. The cornstalks then go into the compost pile with all the other harvestable plants, plus some soil. You can see me in action chopping cornstalks and adding them to the compost in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. When you look at the plants in your garden, make sure to recognize their value as a compost material.

Winte killed oats in late February.

Winterkilled oats in late February.

After you clean up the garden beds by harvesting compost material, you will need to plant cover crop seeds. If you have beds producing food through the winter, that’s great. It’s the rest of the garden I’m talking about. The crops you plant now will determine how each bed is to be used next year. If you intend to have bed space devoted to early season plantings, such as peas, lettuce, greens, and onions, you want the cover crops to be finished by then. Cereal rye, often called winter rye, is a great cover crop for winter. However, it is not so great if you are managing it with hand tools and you want to plant those early spring crops. The rye will have put down a tremendous amount of roots and be growing vigorously in early spring. Options to plant now in those beds destined for early spring crops are oats or Daikon radish, two crops that will winterkill if you get severe enough winter weather. Here in Virginia in Zone 7 we usually have weather that will cause these crops to winterkill, however I remember a few mild winters when they didn’t. I also remember a winter I planted oats in a bed that had compost piles on the bed just to the north of it. The compost provided enough protection to keep the oats growing into the spring.

If you choose the route of planting crops to winterkill, you need to get them planted early enough so that they have a chance to produce a large volume of biomass before the weather turns cold. If you don’t already have these crops in the ground, the time to plant them is NOW. Actually, anytime in the past three weeks would have been better. Another alternative for that space for early spring crops is to mulch it with leaves for the winter. The leaves will protect the soil over the winter and when you pull them back in early spring you will find a fine layer of compost where the leaves meet the soil. The worms would have been working on those leaves all winter. Pull the leaves back a couple weeks before you intend to plant to allow the sun to warm the soil.

Rye and vetch cut at pollen shed.

This rye and vetch cover crop was cut at pollen shed (May 7) and will dry to become a mulch for the next crop.

You want a thick cover of plant growth with any cover crop. Planting at the right time will encourage that. The legumes, such as hairy vetch, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas are often used as fall cover crops. It is best to get them in about a month before your last frost to ensure a good stand. That should encourage you to begin cleaning up the parts of your garden that have finished producing. Not all your garden beds will be host to the same cover crop, so you can do it bed by bed—an advantage over working on the whole garden at the same time. These legumes will begin to grow and will provide protection for the soil through the winter. In early spring they will take off, growing to their full capacity by the time of your last spring frost. You may have seen crimson clover flowering in garden beds at that time. You can cut this biomass with a sickle and add it to the compost pile. It would be a nitrogen component. You could lay it down as mulch right in the bed, but it would soon dissolve into the soil and not last as long as mulch that has more carbon. The advantage of the legumes is the nitrogen they leave in the soil from the nodules on their roots. If you should need the bed sooner than the date of your last frost, you could easily cut the legume a little early, leaving the roots. They are not so tenacious that you can’t plant into the bed soon after cutting.

The winter cover crop that will produce the most carbon for your compost and/or mulch is the rye that I mentioned earlier. It is also the crop that you can plant the latest into the fall and still have a good stand; making it a possible choice after things like tomatoes and peppers that produce until the first fall frost. You can let it grow to seed and cut it in early summer (mid-June here), giving you seed and mature straw. Or, you can cut it at pollen shed (about May 7 here) and leave it in the bed as mulch. Wait two weeks before planting to let the roots begin to die back. The bed would be suitable for putting in transplants, but not for seeds at that time. Often rye is planted with a legume. If you are planting late in the season, choose Austrian winter peas as a companion.

The information in my DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan and my book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, helps you to determine how to plan these cover/compost crops into your crop rotation. In the DVD you see me explaining a four bed rotation as I fill in the crop selections on a whiteboard. The book has three sample garden maps accompanied by explanations. The sample garden maps in the DVD and in the book have crops filling the beds for all twelve months of the year. Knowing how to fit enough cover crops in your garden plan to provide all of your compost and mulch material is definitely a skill that takes concentration and practice to learn. I hope the educational materials that I have produced will help many gardeners along that path. The most important thing is to just get started and plant something. Make note of your planting time and watch how it grows. The learning is in the doing.Homeplace Earth

 

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