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Rye as a no-till cover crop

Rye cover crop

Another year, another experimental cover crop.  This time around, I'm trying rye (different from the ryegrass I tested out this spring) in hopes that it'll fill an empty niche in our system.  Starting at our frost free date in the spring (May 15), I use buckwheat to fill garden gaps, then transfer over to oats and oilseed radish in midsummer.  In past years, I've simply kill mulched beds that come open in the fall, but this seems like a waste of growing time (and expensive straw), especially when balmy spring days make me itch to fill those beds with cover crops.

Hours of daylightRye didn't make it onto my radar previously because the cereal is usually killed by tilling in, and I'm stubbornly steering clear of cover crops that won't die easily.  However, I recently read that rye is readily mow-killed if you wait until the flowers have fully opened, an event that happens when day length reaches 14 hours (May 14 here, according to this handy calculator and last year's rye experiment).  My new scythe will make cutting what amounts to ultra-tall grass easy.

Granted, you need to wait three to four weeks after killing rye before spreading small vegetable seeds because of rye's allelopathic properties, and even larger seeds and transplants can suffer from lack of nitrogen if you plant too soon after killing the cover crop and without adding extra compost.  However, I often don't plant some beds in the front garden until late May to mid June since I like to succession-plant summer crops, so I'm confident I can work around rye's issues.

Rye seedsPotential problems with killing the cover crop aside, rye is beloved by many farmers and is probably the most-used cover crop in the U.S.  Rye is supposed to produce up to 10,000 pounds of dry matter per acre while outcompeting weeds and growing in colder weather than any other cereal.  I was very happy with the amount of growth of my first rye experiment last year, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this cover crop does in the garden.

Our chicken waterer keeps messes at bay in the coop.


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When did you sow your rye? I've been a naughty gardener and just mowed down the weeds that were all throughout the plot that I had left fallow this year. The plan was to kill-mulch to create a couple of beds, but at the same time, I'm itching to plant something...

Overall, planting rye, just for fun, may not be my best idea ever, but maybe next year, so, how late can you sow?

Comment by Seth Tue Oct 23 10:51:39 2012
I had asked a couple weeks ago if it was too late for planting cover crops, and I believe you replied that it was too late for oilseed radishes. Then I had asked my grandmother what it was that the farmers have growing in there fields in the winter around here(Washington State)and she said winter rye. After seeing this post I asked her again and she said I could plant that all the way up till November. So I'm gonna try and find some this week and give it a shot.
Comment by Bo Tue Oct 23 16:22:13 2012
@ Seth: Rye is ultra-convenient, you can plant it anytime. It grows any time the temp is at or above about 5 deg. C; lower and it just sits and waits. If the seed has to lie there waiting for moisture, tho, it may get eaten by vermin.
Comment by Jackie Tue Oct 23 16:46:21 2012

Seth and Bo --- I've read various information on planting time, which is why I didn't put anything definitive in my post. You can take your pick of:

  • Plant two weeks before through four weeks after your first killing frost.
  • Plant in mid to late fall, up until December in the south.

This is when I planted our rye last year, and it did great here in zone 6. Which means that, assuming Seth is the Seth I know outside Philadelphia, he should be fine planting now too.

I'm glad Bo's grandmother chimed in! My data about planting times was only for the cover crops I was sure did well with no-till, but I should have added a caveat that others can be planted later as long as you have a plan for how to kill them.

Good luck with your cover crops!

Comment by anna Tue Oct 23 16:47:31 2012
For weed suppression and conveniently located extra biomass, try cereal rye on your garden paths.
Comment by Jackie Tue Oct 23 16:55:25 2012
Also Rye forms the basis for some very good bread types. It is very nutricious, tastes good and fills the stomach way netter than any wheat type. Here in Denmark where I come from it is practically at national symbol:)
Comment by Sune Sat Nov 10 04:54:30 2012