The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Annual ryegrass cover crop

Annual ryegrassI'm convinced that many different cover crops have a place in our garden...I just haven't found them all yet.  Currently, my old standbys are fall-planted oats and oilseed radishes for winter cover, then buckwheat for short fallow periods in the summer garden.  But I've found another niche I want to fill, and I'm hopeful annual ryegrass will slide right in.

My back garden is nearly as eroded and waterlogged as the forest garden, which means that many vegetables do poorly there.  I've raised some of the beds up with trucked in manure and topsoil, but there's never enough organic matter to go around, so most of the beds are still sitting in water.

Since I'm moving my tomatoes to the forest garden's raised beds this year, I have about twenty beds that can sit fallow until this time next year.  That just happens to be how many waterlogged beds there are in the back garden, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see how much a long term cover crop could build up such a troubled spot.

Annual ryegrass won the lottery for several reasons, but the real selling point of this brilliant green grass is that it can handle floods.  The cover crop bible (Managing Cover Crops Profitably) notes that annual ryegrass produces more biomass than small grains in wet soil, growing as much as 9,000 pounds of organic matter per acre if you mow the ryegrass down to four inches several times through the course of the year.  In addition, ryegrass is a succulent forage that's very tasty for animals, making me hope I can put a temporary fence around the back garden and run some of our broilers there.

Smother killing annual ryegrassBefore you get too excited, annual ryegrass has some major pitfalls for the no-till gardener.  Traditional farmers plow ryegrass into the soil just as it starts to bloom, but I'll have to get more creative.  When I tried out annual ryegrass last year, it was very tough to kill, and I decided that if I ever used it again, I would have to commit to laying down a kill mulch to get rid of the vibrant greenery.  The photo here shows a bed of ryegrass approximately 75% killed by mowing the ryegrass close to the earth, adding an inch of manure, and then laying down grass clippings for mulch.

The other potential problem with annual ryegrass is its tendency to self-seed and turn into a weed problem.  I'm going to need to be vigilant and mow the beds whenever seed heads begin to form, which shouldn't be a problem in our small back garden.  Maybe this is my incentive to finally buy a scythe that fits my stature, then learn to use it?

Our chicken waterer is perfect for pastured birds since it never spills on uneven terrain.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I love Walden Effect's new look. The pictures at the top are cool. Congrads on year number six!
Comment by Maggie Mon Feb 27 08:44:53 2012

Like you, I have a swampy area in a small meadow, that I hope to turn into a forest garden over the next couple of years.

I plan on using hoogle culture to raise the beds above our winter water table and at the same time, give the planted garden a water source under the soil. But I am fortunate to have an abundance of fallen trees to fill in this area before making plant guilds around fruit/nut trees.

However, this spring I will be planting my 14" fig tree. With it I plan on planting a couple of stumps to add an underground water source for my fig as it is growing.

Love your weekend homesteader and have downloaded about 10 or them so far.

Keep on writing.

Comment by Mona Mon Feb 27 11:29:32 2012

Maggie --- I'm glad you liked the new banner! I'm ashamed to say I didn't get around to putting it up there until we were nearly six months into year six.... :-)

Mona --- It sounds like you'll have great luck with your hugelkultur experiment! Just be sure to remember that soil near the buried trees will be low in nitrogen for a year or two unless you add a lot of compost. Thanks for reading the ebooks!

Comment by anna Mon Feb 27 15:24:52 2012
Have you considered having two pigs process up the cover crop? Or does that still defeat the purpose of no till?
Comment by Emily Mon Feb 27 21:11:11 2012

Emily --- This little plot would serve as a midday snack for pigs, so it wouldn't really even make sense to borrow them.

I'm also torn about the issue of pigs and no-till. I think that pigs aren't as bad as a rototiller (if done right), but are worse than a kill mulch.

Comment by anna Tue Feb 28 08:17:47 2012
As a thought, if you mix clover with the rye seed it will add nitrogen to the soil. You can turn your cows in on it for outstanding winter forage, and it will stay mowed for you. You just have to make sure you have hay and a bloat block on hand when you first turn them out. The rye will naturally have trouble growing when the tempuratures get above 70, and the other grasses will take over.
Comment by Andrea Tue Feb 28 16:08:55 2012

Andrea --- Interesting comment, but I think we're on slightly different wavelengths. No cows here --- this is a small plot of garden perhaps 600 square feet in total size (counting the aisles.)

Also, I suspect you're thinking about rye, not annual ryegrass. Rye is a winter crop, but annual ryegrass is a bit more forgiving of heat (or so I've read.) Managing Cover Crops Profitably notes: "Some varieties tolerate heat fairly well and can persist for several years under sound grazing practices that allow the grass to reseed." Not that I plan to let it go to seed, but if the summer kills it, that wouldn't be so bad --- I could just put in some buckwheat and keep the organic matter growing!

Comment by anna Tue Feb 28 16:45:15 2012
why did you establish ryegrass? it would have been more usefull if you get some seed mixture for more differentflowers and grasses if you dont Need it for feeding animals
Comment by Anonymous Thu Jun 12 08:38:29 2014

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