Oats in the garden or landscape? Why not?
Long, long ago, when people were first growing cereal grains in the Fertile Crescent, there was a weed on the side of the fields. These weeds may have benefited from the irrigation and fertilizers used on the primary crop, or they may have cross-pollinated - I don’t know. But that pesky weed turned out to be oats, of oatmeal cookie fame.
Oats are members of the grain plant family (Poaceae). Like other cereal grains, the seeds we use to make oatmeal are actually a fruit, called a caryopsis. Unlike other grains, oats contain a legume-like protein, and eating oats regularly can help reduce cholesterol levels. Along with alfalfa, wheat, ryegrass, clover, and timothy, oat hay is grown as animal fodder. Even today, oats (Avena sativa) are grown more as livestock fodder than for human consumption. [My chickens LOVE oat seed heads and leaves.] But, there are plenty of other reasons to grow this versatile weed-come-cereal-grain.
Oats in the landscape
Oats make an attractive stand of tall stalks and waving seed heads. As an annual, oats can reseed an area. Unlike many other grain crops, oats are not as attractive to most small songbirds. Larger birds, such as mourning doves, may flock to your oat stands. I think that their pretty cooing often makes up for any lost grain. But why would you want to add oats to your landscape or garden? Here are just a few good reasons:
How to grow oats
You can plant oats as soon as temperatures are consistently above 40°F. Seeds can be broadcast over an area and raked in or, in the case of severely compacted soil, a drill can be used to create holes 1/2 to 1 inch deep. How much seed was a little tricky to calculate for the home garden. All I could find was information for farmers, which told me 2.75 to 3.25 bushels per acre. Huh. I own a bushel basket but I have never had a bushel basket full of seeds. Ever. After hunting around on the internet, I have come to the conclusion that you should simply follow the directions on the seed packet. If you want to see what I learned, you can read the note below.]
Oats grow quickly. Also, oat plants are triggered to flower as nights get shorter, in a behavior called photoperiodism, so seeds become available rather quickly. Oats are heavy feeders, so side dressing young plants will give them the nutritional boost they need to thrive.
Oats are more tolerant of cooler temperatures and rain than other cereal grains, which makes them a good late winter and early spring crop, here in the Bay Area. Most oat plants will go dormant in the high heat of summer. The stems and stalks left behind by your oats are called stover. Stover can be added to the compost pile, used to create barriers, or left in place for climbing beans to use as a trellis.
The oats you see growing along roadsides are probably wild oats (Avena fatua). Many farmers are angry about wild oats because of cross-pollination.
Oats and crop rotation
In traditional crop rotation, a three-field system would grow legumes in one field, a grain, such as oats, in a second field, and allow the third field to rest, or go fallow. You can use a similar plan, whether you grow in rows, raised beds, or containers. This practice interrupts the disease triangle of many common plant pathogens.
Pests and diseases of oats
Bacterial blights can affect oats, along with stem and bulb nematodes, and barley root knot nematodes, dried fruit beetles, and crane fly larvae. Fungal diseases, such as leaf blotch, stem rust, crown rust, and powdery mildew are common, but not serious, threats for the home garden.
You may never harvest your oats, but, then again, you may. If you harvest these tiny fruits while they are still green, you can eat them fresh from the stalk (they don’t taste like much), or you can wait until they ripen and get hard. When I say hard, I mean it. These little suckers are like tiny oval rocks. Guess what? That’s why oats are rolled. Rolling oats means they are crushed between two giant heavy rollers, to flatten them and make the fruit accessible. Honestly, unless you are growing acres of oats, it probably isn’t worth trying to make your own oatmeal (even though you can).
Grown for their attractive, soil improving, chicken feeding properties is reason enough for adding these members of the cereal grain family to your annual crop rotation, garden, or landscape.
Seed calculation Rabbit Hole:
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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