Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My Emerald Waves of Grain

Sometimes a good idea turns into a great one.

Last fall, I was checking out at the feed & seed store. Saw a sack of seed under a hand-scrawled sign. “Rye. Great winter cover.”

From a distance I assumed it was some kind of ryegrass. Moving closer, I grabbed a handful. As a baker and brewer, I’ve had enough food grain in my hands over the years to recognize it. It wasn’t turfgrass seed, it was rye – Secale cereale, the grain used to make bread and whiskey.

“You guys sell rye?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“Oh yeah. Folks love it in their gardens. You let it grow all winter then plow it under in the spring,” came the store guy’s response.

Wheels turned. I’m thinking harvest, not cover. Bread, beer, who knows?

“When do you plant it?” I asked.

“Right now,” he said. 

I grabbed two pounds. I had visions of using it to create a no-mow strip right in the middle of the front yard. But since we’d never grown it before and had no idea what to expect, the Mrs. was less than enthusiastic about that plan. So I opted for the spot that I knew couldn’t possibly get any worse: the backyard desert.

My backyard has a strip of bone-dry death, about 150 feet long and 10 feet wide. Next to nothing grows there. Not even crabgrass. About all that could get footing in that spot was the occasional broom sedge and wild lettuce. Mostly it was just hard, ugly, barren dirt – a haven for burrowing wasps. 

I scattered the rye there, expecting zilch. After all, I had scattered grass seed there for years, eventually giving up on it as nothing after nothing took root.

I irrigated on and off – not as much as I should have. Fortunately we had a decent amount of rain that fall. And within weeks, this barren scar of sterile desert was greening up. I could scarcely believe my own eyes.

I’ve since learned that rye is a great thing to plant in bad soil. It has fairly strong roots that break up compacted soil. When the annual stalks die off, the roots and straw add biomass to the soil. It does better in crappy conditions than its cousins, barley and wheat. And farmers use it as a natural weed control, since discourages weeds from getting a foothold. It’s also remarkably resistant to pests and diseases. No wonder grain grasses like wheat, barley and rye formed the backbone of human civilization. They’ll thrive just about anywhere. 

By Thanksgiving, it was lush and green, maybe six or eight inches tall. It stayed that way all winter. Frost and snow didn’t seem to bother it. Come spring, it was off to the races. The stuff grew like weeds – from inches to feet in just a few weeks. It really dressed up that formerly arid strip of yard, spawning a small meadow of green. (I challenge anybody to sit near it on a breezy day and not find meditative calm in the sight and sound of the gently swaying fronds.)

Then, it did what rye does: form heads. Holy cow! I might even get my harvest out of it. In hindsight, my reaction was kind of silly. What did I expect it to do? It’s rye, for Pete’s sake! 

I don’t know. I guess I had no expectations – so every little advance felt like a miracle. 

And it was.

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