Use a Rye Cover Crop to Improve Your Garden's Soil

Rye (Secale cereale) is a plant that is best known for supplying us with grain. It produces the rye of rye bread fame, known to deli-goers everywhere. In addition to doing wonders for your pastrami sandwich, this fast-growing plant is a grass that will do wonders for your garden's soil.

Rye seed is available from feed stores and can be mail-ordered from farm- and garden-supply companies. The seed is inexpensive, usually under $1.00 per pound, and a pound of seed goes a long way. This year I used 50 pounds of rye seed to seed 2 acres of growing area. Based on that rate, a pound should be more than enough for a garden bed approximately 150 to 200 square feet in size.

When purchasing your rye seed, make sure that you purchase cereal rye, not annual ryegrass. Annual ryegrass is a different plant, one that is most commonly used in lawns. While it can also make a good cover crop for your garden, it doesn't grow as tall or have as massive a root system as cereal rye; therefore, it builds your soil up less.

Adding organic matter to your soil is a good way to improve it, and rye can produce more biomass than almost any plant that can be grown in the fall and winter. In fact, rye can produce more than 5,000 pounds of organic matter per acre. That means that a rye cover crop can add about 25 pounds of organic matter to your 200-square-foot garden bed.

To seed your rye cover crop, simply broadcast (sprinkle) the seed evenly over the tilled soil of your garden beds and, with a garden rake or other tool, rake it into the bed so that the seeds are covered by about 1/8'' of soil. Then water it with a sprinkler or wait for rain to fall. After the rye gets watered, it will germinate very quickly and will grow vigorously. You won't have to care for it very much after it gets going; it is a very hardy plant.

Rye can tolerate extreme cold and is commonly grown as far north as Canada. It also does well in the sout. Rye does best in cool weather, so it is usually best to plant it in fall, let it grow all winter and then mow it or till it into your garden in the spring.

Once springtime begins to arrive, your rye will turn lush and green. It's likely to be the best looking grass you've got at that time of year. Unless you have a very heavy duty lawnmower or small tractor, make sure to mow or till your rye into your garden beds before it gets too tall. It can get over five feet tall, but don't let it unless you have the equipment to deal with it.

No matter how tall you let your rye get, it will still provide your garden soil with many benefits:

  1. It will increase your soil's organic matter content, which will help your garden grow.

  2. It's roots will ease soil compaction and will make channels in the soil, allowing air and water to get to your plants' roots.

  3. It will compete with garden weeds and can smother them out, thus reducing your garden's weed problems.

  4. It will provide habitat for beneficial insects. I have noticed that ladybugs love rye.

  5. It will prevent your precious garden soil from washing away in the rain or blowing away in the wind.

For all these reasons and more, you should consider giving rye a try.

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