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.




The scoop on (horse) poop

I thought about headlining this blog “Look what I’ve dung,” or maybe “The plop thickens,” but you get the point. This is about fall fertilizing, and why you should use horse manure.

We’re just a few days away from our killing frost, so things are quiet in the garden… with the exception of the nearly 2 tons of horse poop that’s flying all over the place. That’s right, I’m up to my knees in it, slinging it this way and that.  My wife loves seeing me come in the door after a day of horse manuring.  OK, she doesn’t. But I love the stuff, and here’s why:

1 – It’s cheap aimg_1198nd so am I.

Most people go out and buy cow manure and pay a lot of money for it. And man does that stuff stink. Hardly anybody uses horse manure in their garden.  That means horse farms end up with enormous piles of it, and they are more than happy to give it to you… for free. Some of them will gladly use their front end loader to dump it into your truck, saving you the hassle of shoveling it. Or if you don’t have a truck, they’ll guide you to the pile and let you fill your totes at your leisure.  On the other hand, you’ll probably pay $5 for a 50lb bag of composted cow manure, and you’ll have to haul it yourself. And like I said, that stuff really stinks.

So free vs. $5 per 50 lbs. Easy choice. For fall manuring, I’d say you’re looking for about 1 pound per square foot of garden space. For the amount of manure I use, I’d be paying $400 to the cow guy.

2 – It’s better than you think

Horse manure suffers from bad publicity — fears that it contains tons of weed seeds (because cows have stomach after stomach to shred up every last seed, while horses don’t), and fears that it contains lots of nasty pathogens. Both of those issues are overrated. You may get a few odd weeds from it, but not enough to notice. And every manure has pathogens. Use gloves and don’t get too intimate with it, and you’ll be fine.

Rodales, the authority on organic growing, reports that horse manure is actually slightly higher than cow manure in the 3 essential nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). So it’s a better source of nutrients for plants.

Here’s the manure nutrient breakdown, according to Rodales. (the three numbers represent percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.)

Chicken: 1.1–0.8–0.5
Cow: 0.6–0.2–0.5
Duck: 0.6–1.4–0.5
Horse: 0.7–0.3–0.6
Pig: 0.5–0.3– .5
Rabbit: 2.4–1.4–0.6
Sheep: 0.7–0.3–0.9
Steer: 0.7–0.3–0.4

3 — It looks like expensive mulch

It’s true. If it’s been composted for awhile it looks just like that yard mulch that people pay $25 to $35 a yard for. It takes on a nice, rich brown color, like hemlock mulch or that spray-painted brown stuff they call mulch. And some kinds of mulch can be very bad for your pets, especially dogs.  Horse manure is far better for your plants than mulch, and it actually has a nice aroma if it has rotted for a few months. Your neighbors will think you are richer and smarter than you actually are.

4 — It’s easy to handle

Horse manure is typically mixed with shavings, which makes it lightweight and very easy to spread. You can fill your wheelbarrow with it and you’ll look like the Incredible Hulk when you easily push it around the yard. However, the only green part of you is your thumb.

Where do I get it?

If you live in the suburbs, chances are there’s a horse farm near you. There’s about a dozen within 5 miles of me, maybe more. Sometimes they advertise “free manure” on Craigslist, but that’s not the norm. If you don’t know of any horse farms nearby, it’s easy to look them up on Google maps and then call them or stop by. I find that every horse farm I’ve ever made the “do you have any extra poop” inquiry at has lots of manure and they are glad to have you take it off their hands. The place I go to has over 5,000 yards of it, all well rotted, and they happily load it into my truck for me. What a deal!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.