Crimson clover, Johnny Jump Up, winter rye, crimson clover. Nov. 4, 2019. Photo: Judy Isacoff

NATURE’S TURN: Amazing grass

I have been richly rewarded as gardener and artist for sowing winter wheat – which requires warm soil – as soon as beds were prepared after onion harvests and, especially fascinating, the rye that followed cucurbits and beans.

November 18 – December 1, 2019

Mount Washington — For two weeks, I stopped to stare, suspended over the plot of dark brown earth dappled with shallowly buried cereal or winter rye (Secale cereale) seed I had broadcast in mid-October. I squatted to look closer, expectant. No grains had germinated. I puzzled over the fact that plush green grass was growing in beds planted from the same bag of seed in late September. Had the seed, packed for 2015, lost its viability in the short time between sowings? Was this the consequence of carelessly leaving the remaining seed in a warm room?

Impulsively, I raked over the seedbed, resigned to replant. I bought new grain. Although the cusp of November seemed too late to plant, weather predictions were for above freezing temperatures. Researching, I happened upon an encouraging tidbit of information: Winter rye will germinate at 33 degrees. I learned that rye will survive -30 degree temperatures and was reminded to plant thickly, given the late date.

Winter wheat under snow flanks figure by Kelsy Waggaman and cat by Helen Ross Russell. Beneath the trellis, left, beet greens buried in snow. Nov. 9, 2019. Photo: Judy Isacoff

I have been richly rewarded as gardener and artist for sowing winter wheat – which requires warm soil – as soon as beds were prepared after onion harvests and, especially fascinating, the rye that followed cucurbits and beans. Rye grass emerges burgundy red, with little contrast to soil color. The beds become an exquisite expanse of deep red spikes that invite hands to skim over, playfully, like a bristly haircut on your favorite person. As the grass blades grow and expand, the red turns to green, transforming the planting into a new, vibrant canvas to delight the eye all over again.

Winter rye, foreground, seed sown mid- and late October; background, mid-October. Nov. 11, 2019. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Returning to the bed that I reacted to as a failure, about two weeks after replanting, on Nov. 11, I observed what could only be the transposing of my two sowings, as if a living tapestry woven over time. Red shoots of grass from my second planting and fully emerged green grass from the earlier sowing created an earth-toned tweed fabric. Had I been blinded by my search for root sprouts on the rye grains so as to overlook the almost invisible red leaf shoots? They are only visible when the light is right.

Resources

Winter Kill Temperatures – https://www.sustainablemarketfarming.com/2018/01/23/winter-kill-temperatures-of-cold-hardy-vegetables-2018/

Cover Crops – https://www.johnnyseeds.com/growers-library/farm-seed-cover-crops/library-farm-seed-winter-cover-crops.html and https://today.agrilife.org/2001/01/11/soil-temperatures-restrict-options-for-seeding-small-grains/ and https://www.uvm.edu/vtvegandberry/factsheets/winterrye.html