Sunday, April 24, 2016

Turning Under the Winter Ryegrass Cover Crop

As I was strolling the grounds of Denver Botanic Gardens this week enjoying the spring bulb bloom, I saw gardeners turning under a plot of winter ryegrass. This reminded me that cover crops aren't only used in vegetable growing. They can be used anywhere soil improvement is needed including for annual ornamental plantings at DBG.

Growing cover crops has enjoyed a recent rise in popularity in farming as concerns about soil loss have increased. The resulting increase in organic matter from growing cover crops helps in many ways. These include an improvement in soil structure and resistance to erosion, better water penetration and holding, increased soil biological activity, better plant nutrient holding and more. Home and market vegetable gardeners should seriously consider the benefits of cover crops in their efforts.

When growing winter rye for the first time one important question is when to turn it under. Consider this question from two standpoints: 1)how to get the most benefit and least drawbacks in the burial operation, and 2) when you want to plant your vegetable crop.

"Growback" (resprouting)
after turning under
Winter or cereal rye is best turned under when it is between 12 and 18 inches tall and relatively succulent. If turned under when short and still in a vegetative growth stage, there is a pronounced tendency to "grow back" meaning more work in burying plants a second time.

If left to grow until taller than 18 inches, rye enters the reproduction (flowering) stage and tends to have a high carbon to nitrogen ratio due to the high cellulose and lignin content that develops to stiffen stems. This means the plant parts you bury in the soil can be slow to decompose. Note that not only plant height but more so day length promotes flowering. Winter rye flowers when days reach 14 hours in spring.

Chop leaves into small chunks that are easy for soil microbes to attack and digest. In my small home garden plots I use a hedge shears cutting off 2 to 3 inch lengths from the top of the plant and working my way down to the soil line. You can also use a string trimmer to chop plants before incorporation into the soil. Chopping tends to minimize "grow back" because the food supply is cut off from the roots.

The second consideration in when to turn under a cover crop is when you want to plant. Allow a minimum of a month for the leaves and roots to break down before seeding or transplanting. This allows soil nitrogen availability to stabilize after being temporarily tied up by the soil microbes
chewing through the freshly buried rye plants. Once broken down, soil microbes release the nitrogen they tied up making it again available to plants.

Now is generally the time to turn under your winter cover crop if you are planning to plant warm season vegetables in late May or early June.

Photo credit: All photos credit Carl Wilson.

1 comment:

  1. I just want to say how much I appreciate this blog. I grew up in the Southern US and always had a garden as a kid, but since moving to Colorado 20+ years ago have never had a decent garden - until this year!

    We have a few acres just North of Fort Collins and our first real garden is largely a roaring success, which is mostly luck this year.

    As I've been trying to plan for next year, though I've been looking for good local resources so I know how to approach the winter with a good plan.

    I don't see many comments on here, and not much posted this year, but for what it's worth you have a fan and I hope you keep this going!