The why of winter rye

It’s starting to get cold here and we’ve finally had our first frost. Most plants in the garden are dead or slowing down, with the exception of one — winter rye.

This grass-like plant actually likes the cold, thus the name I suppose. I usually plant it around the end of September, and now it’s about 8 inches tall. By next string it will definitely be over a foot.

Why plant winter rye? Here’s a few excellent reasons:

  • It holds your soil together through the winter. Winter rains and melting snows will probably cause some erosion in your garden, but the tough and dense roots of winter rye will hold things in place.
  • It’s a nitrogen scavenger. Winter rye is a “green manure” that pulls nitrogen out of all sorts of nooks and crannies in your garden, and holds it within its roots, stems and blades. So that means the nitrogen doesn’t wash away during the winter, and when you rototill your soil in the spring all that mass of winter rye rots back into the soil and releases nitrogen for your plants.
  • It digs deep. Winter rye has an extensive root system, so it aerates your soil.  And when you rototill it into the soil in the spring, it breaks down fairly quickly and gives your soil a nice boost of organic material for the worms and whatnots to feast on.
  • It’s allelopathic. I know, I had to look it up too. Winter rye has a compound in it that acts as a natural suppressor of weeds. One thing to be aware of — it can also have a suppressive effect on the vegetable seeds you put down, so be sure not to plant winter rye in areas where you’ll be putting down a lot of seed in the spring.

I plant winter rye in areas of the garden where the main crop has died off or is on its downward slide, like under the corn crop and the tomatoes, or in spots where the pumpkins and squashes are growing.

For organic farmers, winter rye is one of those miracle products. It does a lot of good for your garden, and it is fairly cheap to buy, about a dollar a pound. You’ll need about 1 pound for every 200 square feet of garden. The seeds are pretty big for a grass plant — they look like orzo pasta. And they’re not terribly fussy about how they are planted. Just throw them around in your garden as evenly as you can, ideally just before a rainstorm. If you want to help them out a bit, lightly draw your garden rake over them to give them a light covering of soil. There are some types of critters that like to eat the seeds, so the light raking is a good way to keep them out of your winter rye.

In the spring, you’ll find a lush green covering all over your garden. You’ll rototill that into the soil, and you’ll probably be amazed at what it does for your bed of crops.

John Macone is an organic farmer and founder of Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.

 

 

 

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