Just sow

Ah, the things couples fight about. Money. Kids. Sex. The number of pounds of winter rye seed required to cover a 500-square foot garden.

It wasn’t like we came to blows or anything, but it was a distinct disagreement.

We decided to put in a cover crop this year. A cover crop, for you non-gardeners out there, is something you plant while your garden isn’t busy growing things to eat. Its purpose is to improve your soil, a trick it manages by a number of means. Its roots help stem erosion. The cover helps suppress weeds. It becomes another layer of organic matter when you till it under in the spring. It prevents nitrogen, a key plant nutrient, from leaching out of the soil by taking it up and making it available for your spring crop as it decomposes.

Grasses, cereals, and legumes seem to be the most popular cover crops, and winter rye seems to be the cover of choice in our neck of the woods. We headed to Cape Feed and Supply for our seed.

They had two sizes. The 56-pound bag and the 2-pound bag. And there was only one 2-pound bag. We expected the coverage to be written on the bag, but the bag was absolutely blank. “Winter Rye Seed” was written on an index card and taped to it.

It seemed unlikely that we’d need fifty-six pounds of the stuff (that’s a bushel, in case you’re wondering why something would come in 56-pound increments), but we were pretty sure we needed more than two. Fifty-six it was.

When we got it home, Kevin said, “Why don’t we do a quick Internet search to see how much of the seed we should use?”

I obliged. An article on the University of Vermont Extension’s site, written by one Vern Grubinger, informed me that a fifty-six pound bag of seed should cover somewhere between a third of an acre and an acre, depending on how you’re planting it. Several other sites said the same. An acre is about 44,000 square feet, which means that, even using the densest recommended seed coverage, our bag of seed would cover our garden thirty-odd times.

I went back outside, where Kevin was about to open the bag. “Wait a moment,” I said. “I think we should bring that back and get the little bag.” I told him what I’d read.

He looked at the bag, he looked at the garden, he looked at me. He scratched his head. “That can’t be right,” he finally said.

My eyebrows went up. “Why can’t that be right?”

“If that’s all you need, why do they sell such big bags? Nobody around here has that much land.”

“Farmers do.”

“They don’t buy retail.”

I wasn’t sure whether farmers buy retail or not, but I was sure that the people at the University of Vermont Extension in general, and Vern Grubinger in particular, knew a thing or two about sowing winter rye. I pointed this out to my husband.

“It can’t be right,” he said. “It doesn’t look right. How could that little bag cover all this garden?”

“I don’t know that we’re entitled to a sense of how much that little bag could cover, never having done this before.” I tried not to, but I’m afraid I did put some emphasis on those last five words.

“I think I can settle this,” Kevin said. “Let’s go back to Cape Feed and Supply.”

Luckily, Cape Feed and Supply is only a couple of miles down the street. We went back.

Next to the parking lot was their pig enclosure, now pigless, with lush green grass growing in it. “I think that’s winter rye,” Kevin said. “And that yard is about 350 square feet. Let’s ask him how much he used.”

“Him” was a man we’ve dealt with on many occasions, but whose name we don’t know. He owns the store (we think), and he seems to know a lot about animals, crops, feeds, and fencing. He also seems to be in a good mood all the time. We like him.

We caught him just as he was going out the door. “Can I ask you a question about your grass?” Kevin asked, gesturing to the pig yard.

“Sure,” he said. He seemed to be in a good mood.

“Is that winter rye?”


“How much seed did you put in there?”

He looked bemused for a moment, and then pointed at the enclosure. “About that much.”

We thought this was very funny, and it was probably the kind of answer we deserved.

“Would you remember how much that much was?” Kevin asked.

“I would,” he said, and thought for a moment. “I remember because I didn’t want to break another big bag, and there were three of the small bags, and I used all of them.”

Now we were getting somewhere. Kevin explained that we were trying to figure out our coverage for our garden, and we were wondering not just how much to use, but whether using a particular amount was critical.

“If you use more, you just get more grass,” he told us with a shrug. “It doesn’t really matter.”

Because I write about food, and am the author of an actual cookbook, friends ask me cooking questions all the time. “How much ginger should I use?” As much as you like. “Can I substitute beef for pork?” If you prefer, but it’ll taste different. “How long should I cook it?” Until it seems done to you.

Experience, and probably only experience, gives you the confidence to decide for yourself what matters and what doesn’t.

We’re doing all kinds of things at which we have no experience whatsoever. Just this weekend, we wrapped our fig tree so it will survive the winter. (Do we put plastic all around, or just on top? Do we have to completely enclose all the branches, or just protect the roots?) We stowed and covered our boat. (Does it matter that it’s on a slant? Is the tarp too heavy to rest on the center console?) We decommissioned our lobster traps. (Should we rinse them? Will covering them prevent rust or encourage mold?) Our wood-fired oven will put our novice stonemasonry to the test. And I’ll tell you about my radical new oyster mushroom experiment very soon.

This morning I read a Gluten-Free Girl post about dinner rolls in which Shauna, the titular Girl and a very accomplished cook, talks about how discovering that she couldn’t eat gluten widened her horizons by forcing her to look beyond white flour. “Have you ever noticed how your brain sort of sleeps when you do something you know really well? … Learn something new and you’ll see the world new too.” It would be easy to sniff at the mind-expanding power of quinoa flakes and almond flour, but I know just what she’s talking about.

I began this project thinking it would be an interesting thing to do, and would give me something to write about. It was more than a lark, but less than a lifestyle. Now, nigh-on a year into it, it has taken hold of me with surprising strength. I find the work we do here to be absorbing and compelling, and it has changed the way I look at food, at land, and at animals.

And just last week someone asked me – me! – which kitchen scraps you could feed chickens. And I knew! And I told her! “If they don’t like it, they won’t eat it, so it doesn’t really matter.”

5 people are having a conversation about “Just sow

  1. Hi Tamar and Kevin,
    You both have come a LONG Way, Baby!!! Don and I admire all that you do. It brings back some very fond memories of our younger days. I love your writing…I have to look up alot of your words, but the way you put them together always makes me smile.

    Best of luck in whatever you try to do next… and keep writing and learning and loving. And I will keep reading and looking up new words!!!


  2. Brilliant post! Tamar, you are officially the Buddha of Barnstable.

    You say I make everything sound so easy, but it’s no different than your take on what scraps to feed a chicken or how much seed do you need to cover an area.

    Most things in nature won’t fail – too little and the rye crop will be thin. Too much and you wasted a bit of seed. At the end of the day, the seed will still grow. Unless those chickens can’t read the sign and eat all your seed.

    You know, to save yourself digging the crop in later, you might think about getting a couple of pigs to do it for you…And fencing is a good early winter job, if the soil’s not too hard.

  3. When I read a post like this, I feel really envious of what you are doing and learning, skills that our ancestors possessed but that the modern world has made us think we can do without ….

  4. Jen — Knowing that you’ve got all winter to work on me, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had me reconciled to the pigs by spring.

    Aaron — It’s B.

    Alexandra — I have a new respect for our ancestors. Not only did they do this, they did it without power tools and motorized vehicles. My hat’s off to them.

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