What would corned beef be without rye?
Completely different from the ryegrass growing in your lawn, rye has a lot more to offer your landscape than just a marbled deli sandwich.
Cousin to wheat and barley, rye is a cereal grain used to make bread, beer, and liquor. Native to Turkey, rye has been cultivated since the Bronze Age and it is considered the hardiest of all the cereal grains.
Rye has a lower gluten content than wheat, and higher fiber content. But, even if you don’t eat it, rye provides many benefits to your soil.
Benefits of growing rye
Rye (Secale cereale) makes an excellent green manure and cover crop, particularly in no-dig gardening environments. Rye grows well in poor soil, especially in sand. A fast grower, rye not only suppresses weeds but it produces allelopathic chemicals that reduce weed growth. Rye also prevents erosion, and its tough, fibrous root system can easily reach depths of nearly 3 feet, and as much as 7 feet deep in sandy soils, helping reduce soil compaction and improving drainage. Rye is also used frequently in crop rotation and in orchards and vineyards as a way to improve soil health.
If you have a patch of really poor soil, plant a mix of rye, hairy vetch, and crimson clover in the autumn. Near the end of winter, cut it all down and leave it where it falls. By late spring, you should be able to grow the best tomatoes in the county on that soil, and those tomato plants will be bothered less by Colorado potato beetles and early blight, due partly to beetles having a hard time moving through the residue and reduced soil splashing.
The rye plant
Similar to wheat, there are winter ryes and spring ryes. Spring ryes are usually used as wind breaks and nurse crops that are cut down before seed heads develop. Winter rye is grown for everything else.
Rye is a rugged plant. It can tolerate drought, flooding, and freezing temperatures. In fact, rye has a surprisingly high tolerance for frost. Winter varieties of rye even contain their own version of antifreeze! Rye plants quickly reach 3 to 6 feet in height, making it an exciting winter crop along fences. Allowed to go through its entire lifecycle, this annual will produce flowers in April and May, with seed heads maturing in May and June, in California. Stalks, or stover, are very fibrous and they break down slowly.
Rye pests and diseases
Rye has very few pests and those it has cause little or no damage. Pests of rye include cereal bugs, cereal chafers, dart moth larvae, fruit flies, gout flies, Hessian flies, leaf beetles, nematodes, and rustic shoulder knot larvae. Rye plants also harbor bird cherry-oat aphids.
The more intriguing side of rye includes is high susceptibility to ergot, a fungal disease. Apparently, eating rye infected with ergot causes hallucinations, convulsions, and witch trials, due to the LSD-like chemicals produced as waste products by the fungi. The infamous Salem Witch Trials are believed to be the result of hungry communities eating rye infected with ergot. Not exactly a recreational drug, ergotism also causes miscarriages and the loss of fingers and toes, and it can kill you. Luckily, ergot isn’t the problem it used to be.
How to grow rye
Unlike other cereal grains, rye is very particular about seed planting depth. Plant it more than 2” deep and the seed will die. You can drill holes in the ground for rye seeds or you can broadcast the seed over an area and rake it in. Keep the area moist, but not soggy, until germination occurs and then you can pretty much leave rye to its own devices.
When seed heads mature, they turn a golden brown and dry on the stalks. You can leave the plants where they are and allow the seeds to feed local birds and other wildlife and reseed the area, or you can cut the stalks and hang them to dry more completely before threshing and winnowing the grain.
Threshing means beating the snot out of the seed heads to break them loose. Winnowing means throwing everything up in the air in a windy (or fan-blown) place to get rid of the non-seed parts, or chaff. This is a very labor-intensive process, but seeing a bowl of rye (or wheat) berries harvested by your hand is a very satisfying experience.
If you grow rye for no other reason, lady bugs love it!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!