Like just about every gardener in a 500-mile radius, we use winter rye as a cover crop. We sow it in the late fall, and sprouts before the really cold weather sets in. Then, miraculously, it stays green throughout the winter. It even grows a bit, if there’s a warm spell.
Then, in spring, it comes on strong, and we now have a nice carpet of sturdy green grass.
Since we have trouble getting a lot of things to grow in what passes for soil on our property, I can’t help but marvel at our winter rye. It comes up without making the slightest fuss, just days after you sow it. It survives in the face of cold, snow, and various chicken-related indignities. And, unlike so many other things we try to grow, it has the sturdy, fleshed-out look of a plant that is all it should be, not the weedy, dyspeptic look of a plant that’s hanging on by a thread.
So, why, I have wondered, is it just a cover crop? Here’s the one thing we’ve found that we can grow successfully. Why let it set nitrogen and control erosion only to till it under? Let’s be rye farmers! Kevin likes the bread and I like the whiskey, so it would be a big win.
My long-suffering husband pointed out that the labor saved on the front end by not tilling the rye under or planting other crops would be more than made up for on the back end, when we would have to painstakingly separate the tiny grains of rye from their seed heads (is that the technical term?) and do whatever it is that gets done to them to turn them into something edible without benefit of any of the appropriate equipment
So we’re back to Plan A., which is to till the grass under.
Last year, when I did this for the first time, I didn’t think it was such a big job. You just go out there with the rototiller and run it back and forth across the garden, and the grass gets chopped up and rolled under the soil. I think it took me a couple of hours.
When I finished, I put the rototiller away and showed off the newly tilled garden to Kevin. I was feeling triumphant and salt-of-the-earthy, the way you feel after you do a vaguely agricultural job that gets you dirty and sweaty. I admired the fresh-tilled look of a garden ready to receive.
It looked that way for a day or two, and then I started to notice tufts of grass starting poke through the clumps of dirt. I went out to investigate and, sure enough, the rye grass was growing all over again.
While tenacity is a quality to be valued in plants you are trying to grow, it is a serious liability in plants you are trying to kill. And winter rye is about as tenacious as any green thing this side of mint.
“It’s like those joke birthday candles you blow out, and then after you’ve made your wish they light again,” I complained to Kevin as I hacked at the grass with the wicked-looking five-tined hoeing thing whose name I don’t know. (Cultivator?)
The battle went on for a couple of weeks, and I decided the rye wasn’t like those birthday candles at all. Those candles do eventually go out. The rye could not be killed, and the only thing I could figure was that it was already dead when I started.
It’s zombie rye, the undead grain.
This year, knowing what to expect, I wasn’t looking forward to tackling the rye.
As I stood in the garage, eyeing the rototiller, Kevin pointed out that there was labor we could conscript to get the job done.
No, chickens. Although we keep them here by force, make them work for us, and give them nothing but food and shelter in return, I don’t think of them as slaves. They’re more like prisoners, and when we set up the makeshift fence around a third of the rye grass, it seemed like something out of Cool Hand Luke. All I needed was a uniform and a shotgun.
Almost immediately, Blondie made a break for it. She found the spot where the chicken wire was droopy, and stepped on it to flatten it. She made her escape, and two other birds followed.
I put in another stake and captured the escapees. Blondie set about casing the fence line, looking for another droopy spot. When she found a likely place, she put her foot on it to see if she could push it down. It took her about three minutes to get out again.
“What we have here, I told her as I scooped her up to bring her back, “Is a failure to communicate.”
But then I thought better of it. If she’s bent on getting out, she will, and she’ll probably teach her little trick to the rest of the flock. I let her go.
That left six chickens in the garden, although one was broody and one was sick (she seems to be holding on, so we’re watching and waiting). We’ll see if zombie grass is any match for a six chickenpower engine.