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

Grow your own straw mulch

Oat mulchSo you want to mulch your garden to keep weeds at bay all winter, but storebought mulch is out of your price range.  What can you do?

Oats used as a cover crop are the cheap and easy way to grow your own winter mulch.  Prices went up 35% since last year, but a 48 pound bag of oat seeds still cost only $16 at our local feed store.  I sow my oat cover crop very heavily since I want to make sure weeds are shaded out, but the oats are still far more economical than a bale of straw.  My 48 pound bag of oat seeds produces the same amount of aboveground biomass as approximately 12 bales of straw ($48), not to mention the nitrogen the roots capture and keep in circulation and the extra organic matter produced underground.

An oat cover crop instead of a heavy winter mulch of straw has another benefit --- labor savings.  We didn't have to haul straw onto and off of the truck, onto the wheelbarrow, Planting oatsand then spread it in the garden.  Instead, I just raked back what was left of the summer mulch, scattered oat seeds on the ground, and lightly sprinkled a bit of the leftover straw back in place to help the seeds stay moist until they germinate.  After an hour and a half of light gardening, over 10% of our growing area is off my agenda until spring.

Before you go out and buy your own 48 pound bag of oats, you should be aware that oats dependably winter-kill only in zone 6 and colder (although parts of zone 7 may see the same results, depending on the severity of your winter.)  No matter where you live, you need to plant the oats early enough that they are well established before cold weather hits, which means you'll have to come up with some other mulch in garden gaps that come open later than a month before your first frost date.

Weevils in oatsYou may also have to deal with weevils in your grain --- little insects that hollow out the seeds and prevent them from growing.  I eked out my 50 pound bag for a solid year, but I noticed that the last beds I planted in early August didn't come up fully, and a little investigation turned up lots of insects in the seeds.  For best results, only buy as much oat seed Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook!as you'll use this year --- most feed stores will sell you less than a full bag if you ask nicely.  On the other hand, if you put on your thinking cap, you might find uses for the full 50 pounds.  I used over half of my bag in one morning of profligate sowing --- the bare chicken pasture should be green again shortly!

Our chicken waterer is the dependable and easy way to keep clean water in your coop at all times.

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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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Can you grind what you don't plant to make oat flour? Might be a good way to use what doesn't get planted.
Comment by Debbi Fri Sep 2 07:20:03 2011
The oats most people grow have hulls, so you'd have to find a way to dehull them before grinding them, but I was thinking that if I had any extra, I could always add the oats to the chicken feed a bit at a time. I think having someone on the farm eat up any excess seeds rather than carrying them over to next year is a very good idea.
Comment by anna Sat Sep 3 15:49:11 2011

First, I love what I see you all doing. major kudos

Now then, grain storage is a pain, true. Bugs want to eat the grains faster than we can use them- but there is a simple solution. This applies to all forms of grain, chicken feed, human feed & planting seeds of all types... diatomaceous earth. I'm in an urban area, so bugs are horrible. Storing seeds & grains is beastly. I went & bought a 50# bag of diatomaceous earth from my local feed n seed store for around 40$. With diatomaceous earth, you simply spinkle it into the grains & through a form of dehydration, it kills any bug that makes a beeline for your stash. It's got to be foodgrade but it can be used in everything from corn, rice, oats & wheat to poppyseed, fruit seed & even flower seeds. Obviously, you can find smaller bags but there are so many ways to use this stuff, I never buy less than 50#. Dust the chickens & their coop area to help keep parasites away. They will eat it as they forrage, too, raising their calcium levels. Diatomaceous earth is basicly silica, the foundation block for calcium production in the body. Aside from the many garden/farm uses, it is also helpful in the diet as well. Only 40mg are needed daily to help reduce inflamtion & rebuild joint & bone damaged areas. But I digress...

Hopefully this can help you in your efforts. <3

Comment by KitsuneNyx Mon Sep 5 15:51:22 2011
There are other options for keeping insects out of your grain too, but most of them work better on a small than a large scale. If you freeze your grain for a week, that'll kill all the bugs and then you can store it in a bug-proof container and be safe, for example. Depending on how much grain you've got, though, that could be tough, as would mixing the diotomaceous earth into masses of grain. I think that just finding a way to use it up fast is the best solution!
Comment by anna Mon Sep 5 18:06:38 2011

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