The Practical Gardener

We should be having epiphanies every day. Trouble is, we’re creatures of habit, and epiphanies just don’t tend to unfold within the realm of ordinary consciousness. All day long, we’re dealing with stresses at work and in traffic and remembering to make creative bag lunches for the kids. So it’s a relief to be able to do something that doesn’t require thinking — to just do it out of habit.

I sometimes fantasize that it would all be different if I were half-naked in the jungle, living by my wits — living in the moment, always. But I don’t really believe Natural Man did any better in this regard. Archaeologists have shown that after Homo sapiens arrived on the scene (around 50,000 years ago), tools remained the same for at least 35,000 years. By nature, we live by convention and habit — a prospect at once reassuring and depressing.

I got to thinking about this last week after my gardening pal Robert Klein called to pick my brain about how to deal with the rye he’d planted as a winter cover crop. I’d encountered the same challenges about 18 years ago and ended up posing the same questions Robert was now asking me.

The first time I grew a winter cover crop, it was rye grass. I planted it in the fall and was thrilled with the luxurious growth of thick, green grass that covered my beds all winter. And when spring came around, I was overjoyed to be able to turn this biomass under with my garden fork. Rye grass has gnarly roots and greenery, and turning it under is downright grueling work. Back then, however, my blue-collar body was in its prime, and I bulled through the work without a second thought.

I grew rye grass for about four winters. It was the cover crop of choice among farmers in southern New England, where I lived. It was also the conventional choice for gardeners like me who followed the advice found in typical gardening books and articles. And indeed, rye is still a popular winter cover crop among farmers all over the country for some pretty good reasons. It grows really fast and will smother weeds. It grows in a wide variety of climates and soils. When it gets turned under in the spring, it puts a healthy amount of nitrogen into the soil to be used by the next round of crops. It adds a reasonable amount of biomass to the soil, which eventually breaks down into humic matter. And it turns under very easily when you’re using a tractor and a plow.

But a roto-tiller has a hard time turning under a good crop of winter rye; the long grass and thick root structure get tangled up in the tines. Using a garden fork or shovel is even more frustrating. About the fourth year I did it, I realized it was hard and grueling work — there had to be a better way. Only then did I start exploring other cover-crop options that give similar results but are easier to deal with.

That worthy subject, however, will have to wait till fall. Today’s theme is what poor sods like my pal Bob can do if they’ve had the good sense to plant a cover crop of rye but must now figure out how to make use of it without throwing the back out.

Bob and some other folks had been turning under the rye at the community garden where they tend their plots, only to be confronted with unmanageable chunks of soil, roots and green — quite different from what they’d imagined they would get. So Bob did exactly what I’d done many years ago: He called up someone who might know what to do and asked for advice. It’s a common dilemma that all gardeners encounter in their quest for great soil.

There are actually several possible answers to the challenge, and dealing with it can be part of a larger strategic approach to gardening (again, a subject for another day).

In the meantime, however, if you’ve turned over a bed of winter rye and it looks like the aftermath of a Gettysburg, here’s what you can do. Take a hoe or shovel, break up the clods as much as possible, and smooth it all out as best you can. Water the heck out of the broken-up clods. Score enough composted leaves from the municipal leaf dump (at Broadway and Catawba) so you can lay on four inches of that lovely black stuff with a garden fork. (That lucky cuss Bob had some rotted hay mulch at his disposal, which I told him would do just as well.) The goal here is to smother all the organic matter with the chopped-up rye.

Alas, it will take about six weeks before the whole bed will be fit for planting seeds; in the meantime, however, you can make 12-inch openings in the mulch, further refine the chopped-up sod and rye grass you’ve removed, and mix them with compost or bagged, composted cow manure. Return this mixture to the holes and you’ll have perfectly acceptable places to transplant seedlings. Meanwhile (joy of joys), the rest of the bed is already mulched and in a holding pattern while all that great organic matter from the winter rye is breaking down into usable nitrogen and humic matter.

And if you haven’t turned over the rye yet, you can just mulch it (or mow it first and then mulch it, being sure to leave the nitrogen-rich clippings where they fall). Either way, you’ll spare yourself the backbreaking labor. The rye will rot under the cover of the mulch, enhancing the soil. Meanwhile, transplants can be installed as described, and you’ve still benefited from your winter rye — without having to schedule an appointment with your chiropractor.

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