Our 6CP rototiller

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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.

The rye grass at 9am

Slaves?

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.

The rye grass at 4pm

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.

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Comments

  1. Lol!
    Last year we dumped some compost in the garden intending to plant a fall garden. Unfortunately, the yellow jackets had a nest there (first time we ever had that problem!) so we decided we would just forget the idea (first grandbaby was on the way and some things seem to take precedent). Our chicks grew and we let them out each day to run about…they had that whole area where the compost was laid DECIMATED IN LESS THAN A WEEK! No weeds growing there now! They are industrious sorts…wish they would stop ’tilling’ up my potted plants tho….
    now if I can just get over this flu bug grandbaby passed on to us, I could get out into the garden to work!

    Hoping your sick hen is doing better and passes that egg!

  2. Eleven years ago I moved onto a former pasture, with old-growth prairie grass. The story goes that the land has never been plowed, dating all the way back to when northern Oklahoma was open prairie.

    Then I overseeded around the house with some bermuda grass.

    Last year I wanted a garden and brought in a disk to break up the sod. I gave a half-hearted effort, and got a couple small patches cleared and some tomatoes and peppers out of it. This year, most of the sod is still sod, so I used a mattock to dig out the sod. Then to dig up bermuda roots. Then a cultivator fork to dig up bermuda roots. Then, where I want to plant, a hand pick to dig up bermuda roots. I have some larger areas cleared, now, but my garden is somewhere between a bizarre square foot garden (clearing chunks where so I can plant a two foot pea row, or 10 tomatoes here, and a row of marigolds along the fence over there), and, um, sod. Tall, prairie grass sod. But I have lots of earth worms!

    Luck!

  3. I am hoping that when I have chickens, they will eventually lay waste to a large patch of dandelions. I made Steve leave the flowers as fodder for the bees and now I am regretting the decision. I look back there and all I see is a sea of dandelion seed heads. I need chickens in the worst possible way.

    The good news is that I now have building materials for one. The bad news is that I have other projects taking precedence over the coop. But it will get done. And eventually I’ll have a 3CP rototiller. Only half the CP that you have. But then, you have a bigger place than I do; you need all that CP.

    I’m still hoping for the best for your sick girl.

  4. “The undead grain.” I love it.

  5. We tried a cover crop years ago – hairy vetch. The name alone should have alerted us to the danger but we were newbies. And because we were gardening in raised beds, a rototiller wasn’t practical; we were pulling it out until we moved. Hope your chickens have solved the problem!

  6. Zombie rye…hehe. Hope the chicken prisoners do the job for you and eat all the rye. 🙂

  7. Did you till it under when it was blooming? I ran across a mention of it on a barely related article. It sounded like that is the Only time to do it. From other reading I know it Is the optimal time. Oh, the article was http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20111023_growing-vegetables-with-cover-crop-mulch

    Love your blog. 🙂

  8. Okay, I ran across another mention, and yes in order to kill it completely it should be in bloom. However, you might be interested in the roll and crimp method that this article focuses on. It creates mulch while also integrating the green manure/winter cover crop. I thought it was very interesting.
    http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20100917_tillage-and-toxins
    Oh, lol, I didn’t even realize it was from the same site. I’ve been skipping all over. Ever heard of Sepp Holzer? Just curious.